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December 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Natural disasters creating hardship for local charities Natural disasters creating hardship for local charities (December 16, 2005)

Nonprofits' donations down; hoping for 11th hour spurt of giving

by Saqib Rahim

Oneida Branch knows when times are tough.

For 50 years, she has helped local families from her East Palo Alto home, providing food, clothing, and whatever else she can offer -- especially during the holidays.

But this year has been different, she said. "Last year I had so many turkeys and everything, but this year it's so scarce.

"But I know why -- because of all the disasters around," she said.

Branch isn't alone in her assessment. In the midst of a holiday season that follows a disaster-ridden year, many local charities -- though not all -- say they are suffering from near-empty coffers.

American donors were already reeling at the beginning of the year because of the gruesome tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in South and Southeast Asia. Then, in August, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, leaving tens of thousands homeless.

Worse turned to worst in October when an earthquake killed more than 70,000 in Pakistan and left more than 3 million homeless on the verge of a brutal winter.

Directors at local charities say that Palo Altans -- and Bay Area residents in general -- have been reliable philanthropists throughout the year. But now with the holiday season upon them -- a time of year that is crucial for many charities -- many are saying that donation levels are far below the season's usual output.

Ecumenical Hunger Services in East Palo Alto is well-known for distributing food, clothes and gifts to needy families during the holidays. Most of the goods they give out, said Director Nevida Butler, is donated by locals. But this holiday season, she said, her organization has received far less than usual.

"Right now, it looks really grim," she said. "I would say at least right now, less than one-half of our [regular donors] have called to support."

The Second Harvest Food Bank, a major distributor of donated food in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, is similarly strapped. While food donations have been strong, she said, the Food Bank gets more bang for the buck with cash donations. The 2005 holiday food drive has only received $1 million of its $4 million target, which is slightly behind last year's pace.

Part of that is because corporations - which account for 15 percent of the organization's annual donations - are giving less than usual, said Senior Director of Development Beth DeWolf. To put it in perspective, she said, last year a Bay Area corporation donated more than $30,000. This year, she received a check for $2,500.

For Trish Bubenik, executive director at the American Red Cross' Palo Alto chapter, the explanation is obvious: donor fatigue.

"I think most families have a budget -- they have a donation budget," she said. With the tsunami striking so close to the beginning of 2005, she said, many families likely spent their "budget" at the beginning of the year.

Other donors chose to divert their regular Red Cross donations to Hurricane Katrina, rather than stretch their "budgets" to give to both, she said.

Some charities, however, are surviving the drought. Mildred Chin, president of the Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto, said her organization's fund drive that began in November has raised $90,000 of its $100,000 goal.

"This year's drive ranks the same as last year's," Chin said. "We expected it to be lower, but it's not, and so we're gratified about that." She credited a loyal and mostly constant

Many charities will continue to take donations past their advertised deadlines, but some will begin distribution of goods and food as early as this weekend. In the meantime, Butler said, charities will keep their fingers crossed for last-minute donations.

"We hope this will change before the 11th hour," she said.

For a list of local agencies seeking donations, visit

Editorial Intern Saqib Rahim can be reached at

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