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In a contest that literally wasn't decided until the last minute, FOCUS Detroit won the $20,000 prize in The Detroit News Holiday Cheer for Charity competition.

Now the nonprofit can double the size of its staff, said founder and director Eric Shanburn — which would mean adding one person. Or maybe it'll splurge and add two.

Charging from third place among the five nonprofits in the finals, FOCUS Detroit strategically timed its major donations to come in at the wire in a contest where dollars counted as votes.

When the Orthodox Vision Foundation doubled a planned $5,000 gift and someone else added a seconds-before-the-noon-deadline $500, FOCUS Detroit — whose mission is to connect communities with kids in need to help them thrive in school — edged Brilliant Detroit by only $464.

FOCUS Detroit wound up with $50,349, plus the $20,000 prize. Though the organization receives some $400,000 per year in in-kind donations, its cash budget is only $100,000, so "this has a huge impact," Shanburn said.

He launched the nonprofit in 2015 and has enlisted hundreds of volunteers, plus interns from the social work programs at the University of Michigan and Wayne State. Those are good things.

But "I've been the only staff," he said. "That's a problem." Also a problem: he's been renting space from schools, and his second straight landlord is about to close.

"Now maybe we'll think about buying," he said.

Shanburn was presented with a check for $20,000 by The Detroit News' editorial page editor Nolan Finley on Jan. 19.

The contest began with online voting that chose five finalists from among 16 charities. The finalists had two weeks to rally support from its regular donors and others.

Brilliant Detroit, the early leader, wound up with $49,885, followed by Detroit Dog Rescue, Mercy Education Project and Southwest Solutions. They totaled $133,130 in donations — almost triple the $45,000 raised when Holiday Cheer for Charity debuted last year.

“The News is pleased to provide Cheer for Charity as an avenue for these great organizations to raise over $130,000, especially at such a critical time of year,” said Detroit News publisher and editor Jon Wolman. “These five groups represent many hundreds of organizations which serve our communities and depend on public support.

“The News salutes the generosity of our readers and is proud to provide FOCUS Detroit  an additional $20,000 to support its important work."

Though it missed out on the $20,000, Brilliant Detroit counted the two weeks as a success, said CEO Cindy Eggleton, and not just because of the money it took in.

“It’s never just about the money,” said Eggleton, whose organization brings a unique neighborhood focus to reading readiness for young children. “It’s about how we leverage that awareness to get more hands around the work.”

With a corps of 800 volunteers and an expanding footprint in city neighborhoods, “We’re starting to move the needle,” Eggleton said. Then she added something that applied to every group in the contest:

“If we all come together, it’s going to make a difference.”

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