Religious nonprofits across the country had to pivot last year to make up for major losses in giving in-person as many people are staying home due to the pandemic. And leaders of those nonprofits say needs in their communities, from helping people get food to paying their rent, have surged.
The Salvation Army, one of the largest charities in the country, expected up to a 50% drop in donations to its ubiquitous Red Kettle campaign during December, according to Dale Bannon, the national community relations and development secretary at the Salvation Army's Alexandria-based headquarters.
"Families are deciding: Do I pay the rent ... or do I provide toys for children under the tree?" Bannon said.
A complete picture of how Americans gave in 2020 won't be clear until later this year, since nearly one-third of total annual giving happens in December, and many people make tax-deductible donations right at the end of the year.
Many religious nonprofits are scrambling to get online donations to address the growing list of needs in their communities. The economic effect of the pandemic has been swift for many families last year as nearly 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since the summer, according to data from researchers at the University of Notre Dame and University of Chicago.
In recent years, the Salvation Army has come under public scrutiny for alleged discrimination against people who are LGBT. The leaders of the Christian charity and church have said it welcomes all people.
With retail stores closed, a national shortage of loose change this year and some people reluctant to touch objects like a kettle, the charity expects a major hit to its annual kettle campaign that has been going for nearly 130 years.
Bannon said people are donating more clothes to Salvation Army thrift stores, which funds substance-abuse programs, but cash contributions to the charity have fallen compared to 2019 when the charity raised $126 million during the holiday season. In the Washington area, Bannon said, people are donating toys and giving gift cards, but kettle revenue, which helps the organization provide local food and shelter year-round, has been down about 30%.
Bannon said he was ringing the bell next to a kettle at a Walmart in Alexandria, Va., last month when someone came up and said she normally donates but this year she had nothing. She asked for help getting toys for her grandchildren.
"People who used to give in those red kettles are now asking for assistance," he said.
The month of December is a big one for religious congregations because they typically receive 50% more than any other month, according to David King, the director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
"It's clear some people are primed and ready to give," King said. "There are also tons of informal, neighborly giving that's happening in this season."
King said he did a survey of more than 500 congregations at the end of the summer and 59% of congregations were maintaining their giving while 41% saw declines in giving. The small congregations under 50 struggled the most. Just 14% of congregations did furloughs or layoffs.
Online giving to congregations has surged; 73% of congregations had online giving as of March 2020 and most added the option within the next few months.
In recessions, King said, religious giving usually doesn't drop as much as other kinds of giving.
"It's like an essential good," King said. "People who give to their congregations typically continue [even] when times are tough."
Saba Rashid of the Montgomery County Muslim Foundation, a Muslim charitable organization in Gaithersburg, Md., focused on eliminating hunger, said community giving has remained steady at $40,000, but the number of people seeking help has jumped.
In 2019, the organization served about 150 households, but last year it served around 550. She said she thinks donors are feeling fatigued and some are cash strapped.
"We're seeing generosity, but we also have a lot of need," Rashid said. "Every month is a struggle."
Eugene Cho, head of the Christian nonprofit Bread for the World that advocates for policies to end hunger, said the beginning of the pandemic forced many people to understand what it's like to live with some scarcity, when toilet paper rolls were flying off store shelves.
With a $13 million budget, it's too early to assess 2020's giving compared to 2019, Cho said, but he's seeing signs such as the number of new donors and how people who have the means are giving more.
"It's been encouraging to see people responding to miles and miles of people waiting in line at food banks," he said.
Even as people have been motivated to give during the pandemic, some charities have taken big hits with galas, auctions and fundraisers canceled. But others are seeing members of their communities step up and respond to needs.
Gil Preuss, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he usually raises about $20 million each year but has raised about 30% more in the last year. However, he said, he sees about a 45% in need from families this year in paying rent or mortgages, utility payments and getting food. People who were struggling are much worse off, he said, but people who are fine have stepped up in giving.
"People who have capacity feel lucky," Preuss said. "They feel a higher level of responsibility."