For many of America's social service charities, this holiday season is providing a daunting mix of heavier demand for services, reduced funding and an ever-widening range of clients seeking help as economic woes persist.
Two recent surveys convey the extent of the challenges.
According to Catholic Charities, 76 percent of the agencies in its national network are seeing an increased demand for food while 72 percent have cut operating costs. The Bridgespan Group, a Boston-based adviser to charities, said 80 percent of the 100 nonprofits responding to its latest survey are coping with funding cuts.
Rebecca Brislain, executive director of the Florida Association of Food Banks, said many of her affiliates are experiencing unprecedented demand for assistance as the state reels from rampant home foreclosures and job losses.
"A lot of people are accessing food banks for the first time and don't know how to navigate the system," she said. "Just a few months ago they were living the American dream."
Brislain said one charity in the Fort Myers area was surprised to get a request for a food delivery to a home in a seemingly affluent gated community. Inside, she said, were a mother and father who'd both lost their jobs and had been sleeping on the floor along with their children after selling most of their possessions — including furniture — in an effort to keep their house.
In Boca Raton, on the other side of Florida, the new clients seeking help from Ruth Rales Jewish Family Services include victims of Bernard Madoff's investment Ponzi scheme.
Beth Levine, the nonprofit's administrative services director, cited the woes of a 78-year-old man who'd been investing with Madoff since the 1970s.
"Now he and his wife are living on Social Security," Levine said. "It's heartbreaking. He told me, 'We had a wonderful life, but now the ride is over."'
She said the man initially declined assistance but later requested deliveries from the agency's Kosher food pantry.
"He's a very proud man," Levine said. "He said, 'I'm so embarrassed. But I don't have a choice."'
The background for this charity season is grim, with a national jobless rate of 10 percent, cutbacks in social service spending by many states, and 49 million Americans lacking access to adequate nutrition — the highest level of "food insecurity" since the Agriculture Department began tracking it in 1995.
In Richmond, Va., the number of people seeking help from the Central Virginia Foodbank is up 50 percent from last year, said executive vice president Rich Schultz.
"You hear a lot of tough stories out there, the husband and wife both are laid off and doing their best to make ends meet," Schultz said. "They just need help to put food on the table."
Yet even as many local food banks struggle to meet demand, a few places are seeing signs of hope.
Feeding America, an umbrella organization for about 200 food banks, reports that donations of money and food to its national operation are up significantly this holiday season.
"We think the reason is that when times are tough, and people have to limit their charitable giving, they'll give to the most essential services," said Feeding America spokesman Ross Fraser. "It's things like the opera and ballet that lose out."
Arne Nelson, president of Orlando-based Catholic Charities of Central Florida, said he'd been heartened by a recent fundraising drive in his region's parishes — the size of an average gift was down, but more people were giving.
"Americans are understanding that it's our neighbors who are really suffering," he said. "We may not know who they are, but we care about them."
In Minnesota last month, charity officials were astounded when roughly 45,000 people participated in an online "Give to the Max Day" and donated $14 million to more than 3,400 charities in a 24-hour span.
For the Salvation Army, the overall giving statistics aren't so encouraging. Major George Hood, a national spokesman, said donations to the seasonal Red Kettle campaign are down 18 percent from a year ago in the Northeast and 8 to 10 percent lower in other regions, even as demand for services is up.
To boost donations, the Salvation Army is trying several technological innovations, including its own iPhone application and a give-by-credit-card option available at about 300 of its kettles.
In the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., the Shelby County Salvation Army is struggling to keep pace with a record number of requests for a program providing gifts for needy children.
Families have signed up about 500 children to receive presents and 150 more are on a waiting list, said program coordinator Linda Wyngarden. So far, though, there are only donations to provide for about 450 children, meaning some 200 kids may be disappointed on Christmas.
"It's because of the recession," said Wyngarden. "It may be that people had jobs lost and just can't give anymore."
Among those helping Wyngarden sort gifts was Vickie Langston, who needed assistance of her own from the charity this year after being laid off.
"I've never had to ask for help for anything in my life, but I didn't have a choice," Langston said. "At least I can help doing this."
Bob Martens, chief executive of Family Service and Community Mental Health Center in McHenry, Ill., said he's seen a drop in attendance — and donations — at various charity events.
"I can't help but feel there are people out there who want to give," he said. "It's whether or not they have the wherewithal."
For the Baldwin Center, which serves residents of the hard-hit industrial community of Pontiac north of Detroit, getting through the year has required a greater reliance on small donations. One casualty was the annual golf outing, once its largest fundraiser.
"There just really is no corporate money anymore," said Lisa Machesky, the center's executive director. "You have to rely on individuals."