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Empty Stocking Fund ushers in changes in 35th campaign raising money for the needy

In its 35th year, The Gazette/El Pomar Foundation Empty Stocking Fund kicks off Thursday, pairing a legacy of giving with several wholesale websites changes aimed at keeping the holiday campaign going well into the future.

Back is the same mission to raise money for 20 nonprofits across the Pikes Peak region, and a commitment by two foundations to match hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations through Jan. 18, when this season's campaign ends. But, new this year is a larger, more holistic strategy to turn the Empty Stocking Fund into a year-round endeavor — one that aims to push its fundraising into record territory for years to come.

"With a milestone like 35 years, we thought we should take a minute to think about the future," said Dan Steever, The Gazette's publisher. "And sustaining what we’re doing for 35 more years, is going to get harder without a dedicated focus and leadership.”

"Our 20 agencies tell us they’re serving more people than they ever have before, and they still could serve more if they just had the funding for it,” Steever added. "One check, one donation, helps cradle the whole continuum of services.”

Chief among the changes coming this year is the arrival of a full-time director and us dropshippers to oversee the campaign throughout the year — not just when the holidays arrive, the temperatures dip and the spirit of giving is at its greatest.

Deb Mahan, who most recently chaired the Indy Give! campaign, was hired in July as the fund's first-ever director, thanks largely to donations by The Anschutz Foundation, with help from El Pomar Foundation. Her job: push the fund to new heights by attracting more donors and hosting more fundraisers throughout the year.

For example, new fundraisers are being planned well into 2019, with each donation going to the next season's campaign. The fund's website was redesigned, making it easier to donate. And an agency advisory committee was created last year to ensure that nonprofits are getting the help they need.

And Mahan sees ample opportunity for growth. For several years, the campaign's organizers kept their fundraising goal at $1 million. And for years, the community responded.

Last holiday season, the Empty Stocking Fund topped $1 million for the 11th consecutive year, bringing in $1,176,984 and pushing its 35-year total to $20 million. It's a fundraising streak without precedent in the Pikes Peak region.

But still, there were signs that more needed to be done, campaign organizers said. In recent years, donations seemed to plateau, often ending up just shy of $1.2 million. Same goes with the number of donors contributing every year.

"It’s been around 35 years, and we want to make sure it’s still around 35 years from now,” Mahan said. "We have a 2,000-donor database. I think it should be about 50,000, given the size of this community."

There are several events planned for the community to get involved, she said, including several movie nights at The Broadmoor hotel and a bowling tournament.

Already, this year's campaign is starting off with more money than ever before. The fund has more than $118,000 in the bank from fundraisers earlier this year, including the Steve Scott Golf Classic and the tapping of FH Beerworks' Blackberry Paws brew.

The campaign began in 1984 as an attempt to offer Colorado Springs' neediest families toys and the basic necessities that many people take for granted. One person donated eight Cabbage Patch dolls – an impressive feat considering how popular they were back then. A family received birthday presents for a year from members of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, while the parents were treated to a wedding anniversary dinner, archives show.

They arrived alongside more valuable donations: Food, medicine and money for rent and utility bills. All told, that initial campaign raised $45,716 in cash donations, along with almost $7,000 in food, clothing, furniture and toys, Gazette archives show.

From that humble beginning, the giving only grew.

El Pomar Foundation became a partner in 1997, and shortly thereafter, the Bruni Foundation added its financial heft.

And in that same spirit, several traditions will continue this year.

El Pomar will still match $1 for every $3 donated to the Empty Stocking Fund, up to $200,000. And the Bruni Foundation still plans to match $10,000 for every $100,000 donated, up to $70,000.

Should enough donations come in, El Pomar is expected to top $4 million in total donations to the fund. Only a couple years ago, the Bruni Foundation alone topped $1 million in overall contributions.

"It’s a very simple, direct way for people in the community to give people who are less fortunate than themselves," said Thayer Tutt, El Pomar's vice chairman. "You couldn't ask for more than that."

And, just like every other year, every penny will go to those nonprofits, because administrative costs are covered by Wells Fargo, ADD STAFF, El Pomar Foundation, The Anschutz Foundation and The Gazette.

"One-hundred percent of what you give goes straight to the causes," said Jerry Bruni, president of the Bruni Foundation. "But really, it’s more than 100 percent. Because of the matching, it’s 100-plus. And it’s hard to match that someplace else.”

It's a unique gift, because nonprofits are granted flexibility in how to spend it.

For nonprofits such as Tri-Lakes Cares, that's a tremendous blessing. When grants come in lower than expected, money from the Empty Stocking Fund can help backfill — ensuring that programs go uninterrupted, said Haley Chapin, the nonprofit's executive director.

At Tri-Lakes Cares, for example, the $32,252 received from last season's campaign helped backfill funding for a day care offered through its self-sufficiency program, gas vouchers for residents needing transportation to school or work, and school supplies for children in low-income families.

"Being nimble in being able to assist our clients is really the best benefit of being part of the Empty Stocking Fund,” Chapin said.

But none of that happens without everyone pitching in, Mahan said.

"These kinds of campaigns only succeed if it's a collaborative effort," she said. "It's really a team thing."