How to help

The Community Foundation begins its "Culture of Giving Week" today. Donate money to the foundation's Community Trust to help Boulder County nonprofit groups with cash, volunteer time or in-kind donations. As part of the week, Boulder restaurants Jax and Zolo will give patrons the opportunity to add a charitable donation onto their bill at the end of the meal. Visit commfound.org/cultureofgiving for more information.

Clutter Consignment, at 1909 Ninth St. in Boulder, is featuring a Giving Tree with ornaments representing gift requests from children. The store is teaming up with the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence and the I Have a Dream Foundation to provide Christmas gifts to kids in need. Come on in, pick an ornament from the tree, buy that gift and bring it back to Clutter by Dec. 17.

Wednesday is Colorado Gives Day. From 12:01 a.m. until 11:59 p.m., you can visit givingfirst.org and choose from among more than 400 nonprofit organizations to donate to online. The goal is to raise $1 million in 24 hours.

The Boulder Parks and Recreation Department's Youth Services Initiative program will host a series of toy drives and parties starting Dec. 13 to bring some joy to children living in low-income housing. To make a donation to the YSI Program Toy Drive, visit BoulderParks-Rec.org, and click on the "Youth Services toy drive" link. Checks can also be made payable to YSI, Attn: Alex Zinga, 3198 Broadway, Boulder, CO 80304.

The FISH Food Bank in Broomfield is holding a benefit concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Road, featuring the Denver Municipal Band. You can make a donation to the FISH Food Bank or a toy donation to A Precious Child. For more information, call 720-887-2371.

Ongoing county programs:

The Family-to-Family program provides new, gift-wrapped presents to families with children, children in foster care or group homes, seniors and disabled adults. Recipients work with county staff to come up with a "shopping list," and donors can choose what type of household they want to shop for. To help a family or individual in need, call Ann Sullivan at 303-441-1430 or 303-441-1050.

The Family Self-Sufficiency Program is seeking sponsors to provide gifts or gift cards to grocery stores, Target or Walmart for families. Participants in the program are working on developing new educational and job skills to improve their situations, but often struggle to meet their basic needs. To help participants in the self-sufficiency program, call Jennifer Franklin at 303-682-6717.

Casa de la Esperanza serves agricultural workers who have to survive the winter on very tight budgets. Donations of school supplies, winter clothing, grocery gift cards and presents for children are needed. To donate to families served by Casa de la Esperanza, call Carlota Loya-Hernandez at 303-678-6220.

Resident/Senior Services helps low-income seniors. Because so many seniors spend a lot of money on medical care and medications, gift cards to department stores and grocery stores provide a much-needed way for them to buy food and clothing. To help a low-income senior, call Kris Durso at 303-519-7152.

They lost their house, their possessions and their business to September's Fourmile Fire. They wear used clothing and are getting set to move for the third time since the massive blaze scorched their home on Sunshine Canyon Drive.

But Al and Barbara Slarks haven't lost their spirit of giving.

Last week, the couple walked into Clutter Consignment in downtown Boulder to buy used furniture for what they hope will one day be a replacement home in the foothills west of town. Inside the store, they noticed a "giving tree" loaded down with ornamental requests for toys from children facing difficult circumstances.

The Slarks took three ornaments down from the tree -- wishes for a basketball, an action figure and a set of Legos -- and headed out to buy gifts for three needy boys.

"After the fire, we were so impressed with the way the community stepped up and donated things, and we wanted to help out," Al Slarks said. "I feel for those little kids. I got pretty emotional about it."

The displaced couple's act of generosity may be illustrative of a larger culture of giving in Boulder and Broomfield counties that perseveres despite high levels of joblessness and an economy that refuses to rise out of the doldrums.

"It's definitely a year in which people continue to dig deep and give what they can," said Gretchen Minekime, director of advancement for the Community Foundation in Boulder. "People continue to support the organizations and causes that are tried and true."

At the foundation, which has granted more than $35 million to local nonprofits over the past 20 years, the hope is that donations this year will top $6 million for the first time since 2007. Last year, they equaled $5.7 million.

At the Emergency Family Assistance Association in north Boulder, donations from individuals and companies are projected to hit $1.26 million, the second-best total in the past five years.

"People understand that people are really hurting in this environment, and so we have seen folks helping out," said EFAA executive director Terry Benjamin.

Need offsets generosity

Despite the relatively stable donor base and revenue stream, leaders of nonprofit organizations throughout the county warn that the community's generosity is being more than offset by the increasing level of need. The Great Recession has squeezed many former breadwinners out of jobs and placed families in peril over the last couple of years, they say, and the number of those needing help keeps heading skyward.

Suzanne Crawford, CEO of Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette, describes the crowd that waits for emergency food in the center's front lobby over the last month or so as "standing-room only." And while the center hasn't experienced a significant dropoff in contributions so far in 2010, it serves 7 to 8 percent more families than it did last year, Crawford said.

"And we're seeing more people who have never had to seek assistance," she said.

EFAA's Benjamin said his emergency facility's caseload has grown 28 percent from fiscal year 2009 to this year.

"It's great that the money is up, but at the same time, needs are just taking off faster," he said. "The problems are more severe."

Benjamin said organizations like his are relatively lucky in the sense that they provide the "front-line safety net" services that tend to get attention first. He said nonprofit groups that advocate on behalf of the arts or environmental causes might see a serious drop in support as contributors tighten their belts and scale back where they spend their charitable dollars.

Chris Barge, director of philanthropic services for the Community Foundation, said there's no doubt that people are choosing to fund programs that address "systemic change."

"People are much more shrewd and strategic in how they spend their donated dollars," he said.

But philanthropic leaders worry whether the positive trend in giving will continue if the jobless rate doesn't soon improve and data on the economy doesn't brighten.

Benjamin, who said this recession is deeply entrenched, can't imagine things improving for several years.

"We're going to bounce along at the bottom for a long time," he said. "It's going to be a long slog because there are structural problems with this recession."

That, in turn, will keep caseloads high for the next three to five years and put a crimp on what people are willing to contribute, said Sister Carmen's Crawford.

"With so many people unemployed and underemployed, it's difficult to predict if people will be generous," she said.

'Giving spirit is there'

Colorado isn't known nationally for its collective generosity.

The state got a bad rap after the Colorado Nonprofit Association released a study in 2008 that showed residents here, though earning 7 percent more than the average American, gave 9 percent less to charity. In 2006, Boulder residents gave 2.9 percent of their income to charity -- less than their counterparts at the state, national and regional levels, the report stated.

But Ann Sullivan, volunteer services coordinator for the Boulder County Health and Human Services Department, said the giving spirit isn't always measured in dollars. She conceded that the county's Family-to-Family program, an initiative in which people buy gifts for families in need, has seen a 30 percent decline in donations this year. However, more people have volunteered their time helping out instead.

"This is a county that wants to take care of itself and help others knowing that others have it much worse than they do," she said.

That was never truer than after the Fourmile Fire tore through the foothills west of Boulder in September, destroying 169 structures. The community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and donated countless bags of clothes, racks of furniture and boxes of kitchen items to evacuees who lost their homes.

Barge, with the Community Foundation, is convinced that the catastrophic fire didn't generate such donor fatigue that people have nothing left to give. Most see the natural disaster as an "above-and-beyond kind of circumstance" that needs to be dealt with separately from the day-to-day struggles many in the community face, he said.

If anything, said Clutter Consignment's owner Patty Ross, the proximity and intensity of the Fourmile Fire might have invigorated the spirit of giving in those who might not have otherwise bothered this year.

She said she gave away 20 percent of her sales at Clutter one day this past fall to help those displaced by the fire. Once again, she will donate 10 percent of her proceeds Friday, this time to the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence in Boulder.

"I think people are aware of people in need," she said. "I just think that the giving spirit is there."

Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or aguilarj@dailycamera.com.