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Washington-area federal charity drive lowers sights

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With the economic recovery still sluggish, a donor pool laboring under a long-term pay freeze and uncertainty about looming budget cuts, organizers of the Combined Federal Campaign in the National Capital Area have reduced their fundraising goal for the 2012 giving season.

After falling short of their goal of $68 million from Washington and the surrounding area each of the last two years, organizers of the annual charity drive are aiming this year for $62.5 million. It's the first time since the financial crisis of 2008 at least — and, possibly, ever — that they have lowered their sights.

"I think that's the most realistic outcome for us," said R. Brandon Haller, chairman of the committee that oversees the Combined Federal Campaign for the 350,000 federal employees in Washington and the surrounding counties. "We thought long and hard about it over the summer and crunched a few numbers before we set it."

The Combined Federal Campaign, which allows federal workers and contractors to choose from among thousands of organizations to support with one-time donations or payroll deductions, bills itself as the largest and most successful workplace charity drive in the world.

Last year, nearly 1 million participants pledged more than $272 million. Their money went to local, national and international poverty reduction, environmental interests, religious groups, animal welfare, colleges and universities and other causes.

The campaign for the National Capital Area, with the greatest concentration of federal agencies, employees and contractors, is by far the largest of the more than 180 within the Combined Federal Campaign. Nearly 121,000 civilian and military employees in the region pledged more than $64.5 million in 2011.

But just as needs have grown in recent years, so have the challenges for fundraisers. The Combined Federal Campaign grew rapidly during the last decade. But as with other charity drives, it has seen giving decline in recent years, from a peak of $282.6 million in 2009.

"Everybody is hurting, right?" said Rachael Schacherer, special assistant to the chief financial officer at the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and the leader of the campaign there. "I mean, we have stable jobs, people make a good amount of money, but you may be married to a spouse that's unemployed. Your children maybe going to college. Somebody is suffering from cancer."

Haller said the Washington area presents specific challenges. Beyond the pay freeze and concerns about sequestration — the across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect beginning Jan. 1 if Democrats and Republicans are unable to reach agreement on deficit reduction — there are the changes in the area workforce wrought by the national military base realignment known as BRAC.

Defense Department employees combined for more than a fifth of last year's pledges, he said.

"So it's a big chunk of folks," he said. "Some of those got transferred out of the area, and there hasn't been a lot of new hiring in this area."

Still, Haller and Schacherer said they see continued enthusiasm for giving.

At the Clinical Center, the hospital at NIH, Schacherer leads a team of 100 volunteers — called "key workers" — who reach out to more than 2,000 employees.

She said she focuses on participation, not a fundraising goal.

"It can be kind of overwhelming to know that, let's say, you might have to raise more than $100,000 — because, then, how do you not think about that?" she said. "I mention it once it to our key workers, I don't mention it again, I don't want them to think about it, because then you are in that pressure situation, trying to get people to give because you know that you have this number to work toward."

Instead, she said, the goal is "100 percent ask."

"And what that means is that really just reach out to each individual, let them know about the opportunity, ask them to consider it, be available to answer questions, and really make that connection," she says.

At the Clinical Center, Schacherer said, volunteers organize competitions — bake-offs and the like — to encourage participation.

"We really have to understand that people can give what they can, and how do we really focus it not on the pressure, but on the fun and the team spirit of being able to actually make a change in the community?"

Schacherer, who was not involved in setting this year's goal for the region, said she appreciates "that they're acknowledging that things might be a little bit harder for federal employees and the contractors and the very people that we're reaching out to."

"Honestly, I think that for me, even if we weren't able to reach our goal, but our participation increased or stayed the same, I feel like that would be a measure of success as well," she said.

Haller said he is optimistic about reaching the financial goal as well.

"Three hundred and fifty thousand employees in this area, that's a big group of folks who have a great history of donating to charities in good times and in bad," he said. "I've met a lot of government workers, and they're in it for the public service. … And that spirit carries over, I think, to their charitable contributions."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

Goals and results

2009

Goal: $64 million

Raised: $66,535,844

2010

Goal: $68 million

Raised: $66,996,495

2011

Goal: $68 million

Raised: $64,542,568

2012

Goal: $62.5 million

Raised: Drive concludes Dec. 15

Source: Combined Federal Campaign for the National Capital Area

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