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With mom Kenya Johnson looking on, right, Emperor Johnson, 5, proudly shows his toy tool set he has selected to Santa Claus. Arapahoe County Human Services hosts the Partnering for the Holidays event at the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office on December 22, 2020 in Englewood. Toys and gifts are collected and given to the Human Services family clients who may otherwise have to go without during the holiday season. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Darci Lynch and her family didn’t expect to have much to celebrate the holidays with this year. But on Tuesday, they got a bit of a break.

After schools closed in March, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Lynch had to leave her job as an Amazon driver to take care of her three kids, especially her 14-year-old son, who has autism and a packed schedule of school and in-home therapy. 

She’s been struggling to find a new job that can accommodate that schedule, while her husband, a U.S Army veteran and full-time student, is in the final stretch to finish his degree. Lynch’s unemployment benefits ran out last week. 

But at least on Tuesday, the family was able to drive to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office for a last-minute holiday gift giveaway event organized by the county’s Human Services department.

The kids each picked out their own present: toy cars for the 14-year-old; a lava lamp, blanket and chemistry set for the 11-year-old; and art supplies and nail polish for the 9-year-old. 

“The police officers walked around with the K-9 unit, they had the ponies out, and the kids really enjoyed petting the horses,” said Lynch. “It made their day.” 

The Lynch family, clockwise from bottom, Christian, 14, Trinity, 9, Joshua, 11, dad Joshua, and mom Darci, check out the many choices together at one of the display tables. Arapahoe County Human Services hosts the Partnering for the Holidays event at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office on December 22, 2020 in Englewood. Toys and gifts are collected and given to the Human Services family clients who may otherwise have to go without during the holiday season. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A month prior, it looked like the Partnering for the Holidays event wasn’t going to happen, said Kala Slater, volunteer and community outreach manager for the county’s Human Services department. 

“We had very, very few donations come in through November and [the start of] December, so we had stopped taking referrals for fear we just wouldn’t have the donations,” said Slater.

The program is a successful annual tradition, open to people who receive supportive services through the Human Services department, which includes Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance. 

In the last two weeks, gifts started pouring in, and the county received so many donations they decided to plan a last minute drive-through event for Tuesday. 

The department had the same issue with its Thanksgiving food drive. Initially, they were concerned there wouldn’t be enough meals to meet demand, but a slew of donations for food baskets came in at the eleventh hour, which were hand-delivered by the department to a record 800 families. 

“There’s been a lot of ‘ask’ this year, all year, so I thought maybe our donor community has felt the burden of that,” Slater said. But after community members showed up in droves last week with new toys and gifts, “we have so much left over that we will be able to save for various events throughout the year and Partnering for the Holidays 2021.”

It’s been a tumultuous year for nonprofits and charities, both in terms of the number of people who need help with food, rent and other services, and the private and individual generosity that has risen to meet that demand. 

Groups providing coronavirus relief and direct services have received the most attention, causing some organizations to wonder if the December fundraising season will generate enough for their year-round needs.  

Colorado Gives Day reported a new record in giving, $50.05 million in donations to local nonprofits on Dec. 8, compared with $40 million during last year’s 24-hour drive. 

“We knew not everybody was going to be able to give [this year], and that probably means those who could give, gave big,” said Beth McConkey, a spokeswoman for the Community First Foundation, which backs, the portal for donations to more than 2,500 charities year round as well as on Colorado Gives Day.

GivingTuesday, a national fundraising day that launched in 2012, reported data showing philanthropic giving through its platform went up by 25% nationwide this year, compared with 2019. 

Pandemic-related social distancing requirements and shutdown orders have complicated fundraising and made it hard for some nonprofits, especially smaller organizations and those that rely on ticket sales from events and gala fundraisers to fuel their budgets. It’s also meant more giving has moved online. 

Volunteers gather behind a table of toys, left, as Arapahoe County Human Services hosts the Partnering for the Holidays event at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office on December 22, 2020 in Englewood. Toys and gifts are collected and given to the Human Services family clients who may otherwise have to go without during the holiday season. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver had to cancel its gala fundraiser in May, but the event sponsors allowed them to keep most of the money, Chief Development Officer Patrick Gaines said. They held a virtual gala in September.

The Boys and Girls Club is considered an essential business, has continued serving children through the pandemic with summer school, outdoor activities and virtual learning clinics. 

While gifts are smaller on average, more people are donating.

“The average gift is down — 10 to 15% lower, but our number of donors is up by 20%,” Gaines said. “People love to volunteer at this time of year, and in the absence of that, people who would normally show up to food drives or toy drives are giving cash.”


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“And we’ve had some donors give extraordinarily more because their businesses have done well,” he added.

The Tennyson Center for Children is one group that did well on Colorado Gives Day, raising about $100,000 more than it did last year through the drive, said Lauren Dartt, Director of Marketing & Communications for the center. 

Coronavirus has made it harder to create the kind of personal experiences that many of the organization’s corporate donors look for, said Dartt. 

Because the group cares for a vulnerable population — neglected and abused children — they usually invite donors to visit their campus or to host special events, like barbecues. But that’s not possible this year, so Dartt and her staff have been looking for virtual solutions to building relationships with donors. 

“You can’t come on-site, be in a classroom and meet the kids, but maybe you can record a video reading books to them, or film a cooking class,” Dartt said. 

This year Colorado Gives changed its criteria for participating organizations, allowing small nonprofits, like school-based and church groups, to use the platform, McConkey said. 

“From that perspective, I think that everybody was really looking to Colorado Gives Day, and donors came through to support them,” said McConkey. 

Still, the holiday season is a big time for fundraising, not just for gift drives and holiday meals, but for the dollars nonprofits use to operate programs year-round. And some organizations are worried December won’t generate enough money to fuel them through 2021.

The Salvation Army, which has seen growing need for food, rent and other types of assistance during the pandemic, is struggling to meet fundraising goals for their annual Red Kettle Campaign. 

Their iconic bell ringers are still outside stores asking for donations, though wearing face masks, gloves and equipped with hand sanitizer. But many people are not carrying cash and are going to stores less frequently, and there are fewer volunteers signing up to help. 

The “Virtual Red Kettle” campaign hasn’t been nearly as successful, said Major Richard Pease, who oversees the business operations for the Salvation Army Intermountain Division.

“We’re about 25-30% down in most of our communities in Colorado,” said Pease. Small donors fuel about 60% of the organization’s fundraising, he said.

Statewide, the Salvation Army raised $2.5 million last year. As of Monday, they’ve raised $1.9 million toward their $2.2 million goal so far this year. 

The Denver metro area has raised $540,000 of its $850,000 goal this year, said Rachael Fowler, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army Intermountain Division. 

Meanwhile, nationwide demand for food and rent assistance and other relief services from the organization has increased 155% this year compared to last, Fowler said, a figure which also reflects what she has seen in Colorado. 

Still, eleventh-hour donors could pull through. The last three days of the year can bring in ten percent of annual giving, from people eyeing their tax deductions to decide how much they can deduct for charitable contributions. This year, as part of the CARES Act, the IRS has a special provision allowing people to deduct $300 in charitable giving when they file in 2021, even if they don’t normally itemize. 

Some communities are also faring better than others. Funds collected by local Salvation Army branches stay with each local organization, and in communities with more population density, fundraising has been easier, said Pease. Donations are harder to come by in more sprawling communities, or places that rely on foot traffic from seasonal tourists and visitors. 

That’s certainly true for the Vail Valley Salvation Army, which has raised about $20,000 through its Red Kettle Campaign this year. Last year, they raised $55,000, Center Coordinator Tsu Wolin-Brown said. 

Travel restrictions, capacity limits and shutdown orders have hit Eagle County’s tourism industry hard, with many resort, hotel, restaurant and small-business workers left with reduced hours or no job at all. 

“We always have had people whose work is seasonal and make low wages, who struggle every year, especially in the off season when they’re between jobs,” Wolin-Brown said. “But this year, a lot of people have lost their jobs, or got them back with too few hours.”

In a typical month, the Vail Valley Salvation Army might have six to 10 families who receive rental assistance, but this year it’s closer to 85 families a month, Wolin-Brown said. They’re now handing out at least 200 boxes of food a month to families receiving public assistance, compared with the 90 boxes they were distributing prior to the pandemic. 

The organization has benefited from a surge in giving during the pandemic from both local groups like the Vail Valley Foundation and from relief funds, private donors and local businesses. 

“We were one of the epicenters in Colorado, so we were able to raise over $550,000 for COVID-relief, and it was astounding,” said Wolin-Brown. “To date, we’ve helped at least 1,420 families stay in their homes and have spent $445,000 on rent (assistance).”

But much of that money is restricted to coronavirus relief, and can’t pay for operating costs or other general relief programs that will continue when the pandemic ends, Wolin-Bown said. 

“We’ve been…an incredibly blessed community, but it’s not money coming to our regular, general budget,” Wolin Brown said. 

While Arapahoe County Human Services saw a last-minute surge in donations for its holiday programs, Slater said some of the department’s regular programs have fallen by the wayside. 

Their “bare necessities” closet — a stash of diapers, formula, school supplies and other essentials that caseworkers draw from to help needy families — is usually stocked entirely by community donations. 

The department had never had to buy supplies, but during the pandemic the department used a few thousand dollars in federal relief funds to restock, Slater said. Many of those items, like diapers and formula, were already hard to find at the start of the pandemic.

“And it’s the visibility. Folks don’t want to risk coming to our office,” she said. 

Dartt, from the Tennyson Center, said donors willing to give funds to be used for any purpose have been especially helpful during the pandemic, helping to meet unexpected needs that crop up.

And while the organization is optimistic about its budget, it’s unclear what the next fiscal year will demand. 

But it’s still early. Groups are also waiting to see if the typical last-minute wave of donations materializes. 

“It’s a huge unknown for everyone – no one knows what’s going to happen,” said Dartt. 

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.