December, #GivingTuesday crucial to Michigan charity efforts

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

As the Accounting Aid Society can tell you, it’s hard to get people misty-eyed about a nonprofit that does taxes. New Beginnings Animal Rescue had it easier: for #GivingTuesday, it simply emailed a gentle fundraising pitch and a picture of a kitten.

Fortunately for everyone else, New Beginnings is relatively low-profile and low budget. A no-kill, cat-centric, all-volunteer shelter in Royal Oak, it gets by on less than $70,000 a year.

For those nonprofits with larger budgets and wider nets, the end of the year brings both promise and pressure — especially in 2018, with the new tax code bringing uncertainty, but few predictions beyond "We'll see."

Salvation Army bell ringer Mike Owens  works the entrance of the Kroger supermarket in Hazel Park on November 24.

December is by far the leading month for giving —  31 percent of the yearly total, according to the nonprofit-specific software company NeonCRM  — and in its seventh year, #GivingTuesday is an increasingly important launching pad.

Last year, fueled by matching grants from the likes of Facebook and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, #GivingTuesday prompted an estimated $274 million in donations. The annual total for the United States, packed with donations from corporations and foundations, was a record $410 billion. 

The Accounting Aid Society in Detroit, which recently began a small business academy to go with its taxpayer assistance programs, needs only a tiny fraction of that. It's largely funded by foundations and the government. 

It's trying a new approach this year, however, one that seems increasingly prevalent — focusing on people more than programs. Community engagement director Angela Gabridge said an email blast last week highlighted individual success stories, and its annual appeal letter is scheduled to arrive within days with the same theme.

"The onus is on us," Gabridge said, to make forms and figures seem personal. "If we can't make that connection, the general public can't make that connection."

Seasonal giving is personal in a different way for the Salvation Army, where the Eastern Michigan Division's goal for the annual Red Kettle drive is $8.2 million, about 20 percent of a budget powered largely by state contracts.

Some 200 kettles in Metro Detroit are staffed by thousands of volunteers and hundreds of $10-an-hour seasonal employees in an old-fashioned campaign that's confronting a modern problem: fewer people carrying cash.

"That’s why we’re putting up signs near the kettles," said Lt. Col. John Turner, the divisional commander. The placards list the Army's website,, along with instructions on texting a contribution. "If you don’t have cash, you can pull out your phone and make a donation right there."

Forgotten Harvest, the Oak Park-based food rescue organization, has ramped up its marketing for the end of the year — with yet another focus on the human side of the transaction.

Television commercials make specific mention of veterans, seniors and children. Marketing director Christopher Ivey said Forgotten Harvest is also employing newspaper ads, social media posts, email and direct mail — "Pretty much the whole gamut."

Ivey said $3 million is the target for fundraising through December, compared to an operating budget of $10 million, but "we really don't know. You've got wildfires out west and a lot of other things that need support.

"This time of year is really critical for us," Ivey said.

In Southgate, Guidance Center president Kari Walker said the mental health and family assistance agency has a new subject for its end-of-year pitch, after five years of promoting the Kids-TALK Children's Advocacy Center that eases the process of speaking to police or child welfare officers.

"We're expanding our use of peer support specialists in our adult mental health program," he said, and the end-of-year campaign will explain and extol that project.

Unlike other agencies, the $46 millionUnited Way for Southeastern Michigan does most of its fundraising via payroll deductions. But it will be unusually and noticeably proactive down the home stretch of 2018, said development and marketing chief Chris Perry.

Starting with #GivingTuesday, he said, United Way will support its *211 community resource hotline through email, social media, television advertising and radio — "a pretty broad push," with a target of $100,000. 

THAW, the Heat and Warmth Fund, planned to use Facebook as a hub for #GivingTuesday in hopes of collecting some of $7 million in matching funds offered by the company. Between email and the U.S. post, said CEO Saunteel Jenkins, THAW will also send an end-of-year pitch to some 50,000 households.

"What's hard for us," she said, is that "if you've never been without heat or electricity, it's one of those things you don't think about."

To that end, THAW has already been active in November, with a gala, a telethon, free gospel concerts in Detroit and Grand Rapids, and a home upgrade sweep with DTE in both cities called Neighborhood Energy Efficiency Day.

Next year, THAW plans to add a fundraiser, a women-centered golf outing, at least partly out of uncertainty over the tax law enacted in January.

The law doubles the standard deduction for most filers and is expected to drop the number of itemizers from 30 percent to only 5 percent. With charitable contributions becoming non-deductible for so many, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center predicted a falloff in donations of as much as $20 billion.

"We're still not sure how we'll be impacted," Jenkins said. She's been told that the only filers who'll be affected are the ones who usually give $200 to $500. She's also been told the law will impact people who give as much as $2,000.

Perhaps optimistically, CPA Marshall Hunt of Bloomfield Township predicted that "people who are charitable will continue to be charitable."

Hunt, 73, is the board president of the Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund of Detroit, which held its traditional newspaper sales fundraiser in the rain and snow Monday. He's also the director of tax policy and advocacy at the Accounting Aid Society.

"I always wrote those last-minute checks in late December, and I probably still will," Hunt said, even though they won't be deductible. "I know charities depend on an annual income stream."

Not everyone, he conceded, shares his appreciation for bookkeeping and the tax process, but most people have a fondness for at least one church or charity.

Come next tax season, we'll find out how that adds up.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn