Economy scrooges toy drives

Some leading nonprofits are struggling to help families keep the heat on and put presents under the Christmas tree.

Local leaders say job losses and economic uncertainty are to blame for dwindling donations.

Toys for Tots, the annual Marine drive, has collected less than half of the 900,000 gifts they were seeking in 11 metro Atlanta counties.

"We are at 436,350,"  Gunnery Sgt. Edward Barrett said Tuesday. "Last year, we collected 710,502. "[Today] is the last day."

They have scaled back expectations.

"We are hoping for 500,000 this year," Barrett said. "Our intent is to give everyone a  little bit of something."

They are calling nonprofits who requested toys to let them know they may have to cut the two toys per child to one.

The refrain is a familiar one. Churches and charities are being called upon to help more people with fewer resources.

A toy drive for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta reported that its 345 corporate and family donors was about 75 fewer than last year.

The Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, which delivered toys this week, pulled together 10,285 gifts, 302 more than last year. That happened thanks to a last minute rush, said area commander Major James Seiler, but Christmas giving is down overall.

"There were some anxious moments here this last week. I am in a faith organization that is supposed to have faith that the Lord will provide, but some days are harder than others."

It also sponsors  the Red Kettle program, famous for its bell ringers, and a Christmas mail solicitation. The money from those programs together dropped $195,000,  seven percent lower than 2008.

"It has been a very difficult year," Seiler said.

Former donors are giving less, and some are no longer able to give at all because of lost jobs, he said.

Nonprofits across the metro area have reported times were tough in 2008 and got tougher in 2009.

Seventy percent of them reported requests for help are up, while 61 percent said donations were down, according to a recent poll by the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. Half think they will have to cut services.

The United Way fell $1.5 million short of its $82 million goal this year, and kept its  goal in 2010 at a flat $80.5 million. It began cutting support grants to local helping agencies last summer.

Many churches are facing the most severe drop in donations in a generation as the economy sputters.

The Georgia [Southern] Baptist Convention saw its budget between 2008 and 2009 drop from $49 million to $45 million, and it reduced staff of 202 by 27. The 99 churches of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta have seen a drop of about $1.9 million in giving this year to $84 million. The church's social service nonprofit for the metro area, Catholic Charities Atlanta, suffered a $200,000 decrease in its $5 million budget this year.

Thirty percent of 1,540 churches who responded a national survey  by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University reported donations dropped on average 10 percent in 2009. In 2008, 21 percent reported declines. Job loss is driving the decline, according to the survey. As congregants' donations dwindle, churches are looking for ways to cut costs. Like other nonprofits, they are seeing a growing need for their services.

Even those keeping tabs on donated pocket change say times are not what they were.

Red Kettle bell ringer Robert Allen stood alone on Peachtree Street Tuesday, attracting little interest from the lunch crowd.

"A lot of people are saying they have already given. Or that they don't carry cash, they carry plastic," Allen said.

Diner Randy Ortiz from Alpharetta has a steady income thanks to his high-tech job, but economic fears have caused people like him to tie the purse strings a little tighter this year for shopping and giving, he said.

"We may be giving about 15 or 20 percent less than we have in the past," Ortiz said. "You look around at what's going on, and you try to be a little more cautious."

Judd Whitfield, a rug and carpet salesman from Dalton was in town for a trade show.

"For me, I'm in sales, so my income is down about 40 percent this year," said the father of three.

So the family looks for ways to trim costs and cut corners.

Prentice Burr and Dick Fenster, retired from positions in finance and banking, mentor small businessmen for the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Small businesses have tightened their belts to the last notch during the last 24 months, Burr said.

"And their employees are not spending either, if they think their jobs are on the block," he said.

Fenster said he tries to give and volunteer more time because he is aware of the growing need.

"But I suspect most people have cut back significantly," he said.

Back in Marietta, where the Marines were unloading and sorting toys at 1280 Field Parkway, Barrett said they will keep working as long as toys come in.

He has not had a day off since Nov. 29.

"I don't want to work Christmas Eve," the father of five said. "But we will work as long as the toys are here."

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