For Bethesda Mission, it starts with the Thanksgiving food drive. Mail campaigns and Giving Tuesday follow. The venerable service organization has even added a family Christmas event to its holiday fundraisers.
“It’s crazy,” said Director of Development Cindy Mallow. “We live for these couple of months here.”
What would nonprofits do without the holidays? The answer is—sacrifice a lot of money.
While many are diversifying their revenue streams, nonprofits continue relying on year-end events and appeals for as much as one-fourth of their annual income, for their very own, extended Black Friday.
Historic Harrisburg Association, founded in 1973, dove into holiday events in its first year.
The then-new organization sought to “revitalize the neighborhoods that had been devastated by the flood of 1972 and to awaken the public to the value and the beauty of historic urban neighborhoods,” said HHA Executive Director David Morrison.
Its Candlelight House Tour, still going strong, “was a way to showcase it and for the general public to get involved.”
“Simply seeing these houses was a form of education and advocacy, for people to say, ‘Oh, we had no idea these homes could be so charming,’” Morrison said.
In 2017, Bethesda Mission launched a new event. “A Tremendous Christmas at Italian Lake” brought carriage rides, Santa Claus, carolers, vendors, and a Christmas tree lighting to a park that normally slumbers in winter hibernation.
“Italian Lake has been a hidden gem for years,” said Mallow.
Sponsors for each activity keep the overall event free, with minimal fees for some activities. New this year: a skating rink.
“It’s not real ice,” Mallow admitted. “But it’ll be fun for the kids.”
While the concept was being developed, Mallow envisioned “this New England, small-town Christmas, where the whole town gets together, and they sing Christmas carols and go for carriage rides and light the Christmas tree.”
“Even though Harrisburg is not that small New England town, we felt it was important to make it a family event and bring the community together,” she said.
The holidays also give the arts a time to shine.
Susquehanna Chorale performed its first Christmas concert the year after Linda Tedford founded the ensemble in 1981. She strives to create “a place of peace and beauty” for patrons.
“If choirs are going to perform, financially and repertoire-wise, the holiday season is rich with possibilities,” said Tedford. “It’s such a good time to bring people together, and I think people are hungry for that, especially in these days.”
The transformative magic “happens for the artists, as well,” even though they’ve “done the grunt work” to prepare, said Susquehanna Chorale alto Anne Moul. The singers, all volunteers, commit the time because Christmas music and carols are “part of the fabric of our families and our country.”
“The reward far exceeds the effort,” she said. “The satisfaction of creating an artistic product of high quality and mixing with other people. We all bring our gifts, vocally and artistically, and we’re molded by the master gardener.”
Nonprofits also seize the opportunity to “friend-raise” during the holidays, spotlighting their missions, promoting future events and cultivating supporters.
Charitable givers, especially younger people, crave two things in their giving—an experience and the knowledge that their dollars make a difference, said Avrum Lapin of Philadelphia-based consultant The Lapin Group. Events are “a way for people to participate,” even if ticket sales can’t match the income-generating power of galas (“and those are becoming less popular,” she added.)
Holiday events derive their power from being “part of the fabric of the community.”
“They help organizations meet their budgets, and they keep people close,” Lapin said. “It strengthens the sense of engagement and community.”
While Bethesda Mission generates half of its annual income during the year’s last quarter, and one-fourth during December, year-end outreach also raises awareness of the extent of its services—men’s shelter, women’s shelter, community center and medical and dental clinics.
“We accept no government funding, so we rely 100 percent on donations to keep us running,” said Mallow. “We feel we have to be out there spreading the word.”
Holiday events and appeals are opportunities to remind audiences of an organization’s value to the community, and that “we are doing what you would like us to do,” said Tedford. Donors are investing not just in concerts but in the chorale’s educational outreach to young people with futures as “singers, teachers, donors, attendees, board members.”
“We know these people value the arts,” said Tedford. “We are their voice.”
Of course, December weather can upend the best-laid plans. Susquehanna Chorale has only canceled once, but with the prospect of a single ice storm wiping out one quarter of annual revenue, “we pray a lot,” said Tedford.
Morrison recalled the year that a blizzard struck during Elegant Progressions, the black-tie progressive dinner benefitting HHA and the Kidney Foundation of Central Pennsylvania. Patrons were stranded at the hors d’oeuvres house “with a full bar but no food.”
“Here was the amazing thing,” he said. “We offered a refund to anyone who wanted a refund. The vast majority of people said, ‘Keep our donation. We know you had expenses.’ It minimized what would have been a catastrophe. It was more of a catastrophe in experience than a financial catastrophe.”
Like many nonprofits, HHA is diversifying its revenue base to lessen its dependence on holiday events. Monthly financial reports “don’t rise and fall nearly as dramatically as they did in years past,” noted Morrison.
Lapin counsels nonprofits to stay in touch with donors and friends year-round, but still, “probably about 25 percent to 30 percent of all revenue is earned in the last couple weeks of the year.”
Donors don’t give just for the tax deduction.
“Not giving puts more money in your pocket,” Lapin noted. “[They] want to make an impact, and that’s why these nonprofits exist, with all their wonderful missions.”
“God bless them,” he said. “That’s the American way. Truly. If there’s nothing more that unifies Americans, it’s philanthropy.”
The corporate sponsors so crucial to holiday-event success show the same altruism and interest in community vibrancy, said Morrison. They may benefit from visibility and free tickets, but maybe “simply, there’s just a feeling of satisfaction. Not every sponsor is quantifying what they’re getting.”
Even tax-law changes that doubled the standard deduction, therefore setting a higher bar for charitable donation itemization, won’t disrupt the tradition of giving, said Anne L. Gingerich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations.
“People in the United States are generous anyway,” she said. “People are going to keep giving because we genuinely care about our neighbors.”
Or as Mallow put it, when the holidays come around, “people have a more giving heart.”
The Giving Season
Would you like to attend some of the holiday events mentioned in this story?
- Elegant Progressions, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, elegantprogressions.org
- A Tremendous Christmas at Italian Lake, Dec. 8 and 9, noon to 5 p.m., bethesdamission.org
- 2018 Candlelight House Tour, Dec. 9, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., historicharrisburg.com
- Susquehanna Chorale Candlelight Christmas Concerts, Dec. 14, 8 p.m.; Dec. 15, 8 p.m.; Dec. 16, 4 p.m., susquehannachorale.org