Again, a time for asking and giving Charity: Solicitations double as nonprofit groups tap the seasonal spirit. But watch out for scams.

November 24, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The leaves have fallen, the snows are sprinkling Western Maryland and the charities are well into their fall harvest of money and goods.

The solicitations are in the mail, they're on the phone, they're in the office and some still come to the door.

While many nonprofit groups raise money all year round for largely worthwhile causes, autumn has become the season of asking, giving and receiving.

"Between Halloween and Jan. 1, solicitations will double," said Jennifer Light, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Willis. She warns donors, "Be careful. This is also the season for scams."

Altogether 3,407 charities are registered in the state this year, the largest number ever. Maryland nonprofit groups collected more than $1.3 billion in donations in 1995.

The holidays and cold weather make comfortable Marylanders feel more responsible -- or guilty -- about the poor. It's the season of phone-athons and annual fund-raising events for colleges and others. The United Way's ubiquitous campaign, which just topped its goal, is an autumn ritual.

Dec. 31 looms as the tax deadline for deductible gifts. People wait until year's end to check their budget, then decide how much to give. Or they want their money to work for them during the year before they let go at the last minute.

"There are so many good causes in Baltimore," said Larry Kamanitz, a partner at a downtown accounting firm. "Many weren't around 10, 15 years ago."

The size of people's contributions is partly determined by their personal commitment to charities, as well as their eye on tax deductions, he said.

"If it's a charity people are not involved in, they give the same amount year after year. If it's their religious institution or college they're emotionally involved in, they tend to increase the amount each year," he said.

Many feel good about giving, but they also say they have limited budgets and are overwhelmed by the continual requests, not to mention telemarketing calls during the dinner hour. Often asked to give on faith alone, they may wonder about the effectiveness of programs.

"We give to our school and four or five charities each year," said Thomas Longstreth, a high school English teacher, "but it frustrates me that I don't know how to distinguish between different charities. I do have to throw some mail away."

Hundreds of nonprofits vie with each other for the donor dollar as the federal government reduces commitments, corporations increase scrutiny and the groups proliferate.

"We all compete for shares of the same pie, but more nonprofits are starting up and the pieces of the pie get smaller," said William Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank Inc. "We must collaborate more, make our case better."

The homeless puzzle typifies the donor dilemma: Should people give to a shelter, and if so, which one? Or should they aim dollars trying to solve a root cause?

Donors, many of whom also volunteer and give food and other goods, have different strategies for giving and withholding money.

"My name keeps getting passed around," said Longstreth. "I'm on some kind of suckers list. I'm sorry if that makes me sound cynical. I'm not. We do give.

"When people call me on the phone and I can't give, I just tell them, 'Sorry I can't. I'm in a bad way.' " said Longstreth, of Riderwood. "They get off the phone quicker that way."

Larry Downing of Fallston, owner of a copying shop, favors small charities he knows, such as the Harford County sheriff or the Joppa Volunteer Fire Department.

"I throw out 90 percent of the unsolicited cards and calendars. I tell all phone solicitors to mail me material. If nothing comes, usually the case, I've made a good choice."

Downing's most personal gifts are not cash, but blood. He gave 12 gallons of whole blood (96 pints) over 25 years. Two years ago he switched to blood platelets for children with leukemia. He's given every two weeks -- 52 times.

He and a buddy, Mike Amend, an inspector with the U.S. !B Marshal's Service in Baltimore, have persuaded nearly 500 Marylanders to give platelets, often using Amend's sign-ladened truck.

Downing enjoys the immediate impact. "I like this kind of giving," he said. "Two days after I give platelets, a sick child gets it."

Simon Avara, owner of a southwest Baltimore barber school, raises up to $2,000 each year with a spring "cutathon," proceeds going to the Ed Bloch Foundation for abused children.

But he's just as well known for passing out clothing and food to poor people during the holiday period and other times in the neighborhood of his 1500 W. Pratt St. shop.

"I see kids come into my place without any shoes on," he said. "Their parents are out doing drugs. The kids don't have a chance. My heart goes out to them. I pass along clothes people bring me. You can't always take out of life. You have to give."

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