Recession hitting charities hard

08:26, Jul 17 2009

GEOFF SCOTT is the epitome of success. He has a raft of chef awards, has created gastronomic delights at some of the world's best establishments, such as Le Gavroche in London and Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, owns one of New Zealand's premier restaurants, Vinnies, and manages it all while being a husband and father of three.

Yet Geoff Scott is scared. Scared because when his close cousin was 35, Roger Scott died of leukaemia.

"You don't expect a young person to get a disease like that," he says. "When we discovered he had leukaemia it was a complete and utter mind-blowing shock."

Roger's death shattered the family and now Geoff Scott watches as his cousin's children grow up without their father. This is where the confident exterior of the 41-year-old chef disappears.

"I've just had my third little child and it makes me wonder just how vulnerable we are to something like leukaemia. When you look at your little kids and you think that you could be here one day and gone the next. It doesn't matter what age you are, it can just sneak up on you. That is very, very scary."

So next weekend, Scott is going to make a difference by doing what he does best cook. He is joining other masters of his profession for a Leukaemia and Blood Foundation fundraiser. The brainchild of celebrity chef Peter Gordon, Skycity's Dining for a Difference involves gathering 13 of the world's best chefs, such as Jereme Leung, Martin Boetz and Elizabeth Falkner, to craft a four-course meal for guests, who have paid $350 a head.

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The planned menu leaves me feeling hungry.

"We just discovered a sustainable koura, or fresh water crayfish, then beautiful quail as second entree. Then we are going to feature hand-picked chestnuts and black angus beef."

The last time the event was held in 2007 about $200,000 was raised for the foundation, and this year the organisers are celebrating another sold-out evening. While ticket sales were slower, the charity is faring better than many, thanks in part to some of its high-profile supporters.

The recession is hitting the charity sector hard, with businesses and government agencies cutting back on social spending by allocating less money to the not-for-profits.

In February, Auckland's ASB Community Trust announced it had lost $200 million since October and would be awarding fewer grants to not-for-profit organisations as a result. Yet ASB Community Trust is just the tip of the downturn iceberg.

A survey by Philanthropy New Zealand indicated that nearly half of the organisations that contribute to charitable funding were expecting their budgets to decrease in the short term and were thinking of making fewer grants this year.

Charities have had to be inventive to ensure every fundraising initiative gives them the biggest return possible. Some events are being cancelled due to poor public or sponsor support, in favour of tried-and-tested fundraising efforts and in some cases, resurrecting the big earners of yesteryear.

Grant-based children's charity Variety has seen a decline in tickets to red carpet events in the past year and recently cancelled its annual Variety Academy Awards Luncheon but their annual second-hand book fair a recession-friendly event is shaping up to be the best ever.

KidsCan, a charity dedicated to supplying Kiwi children with basic necessities such as food, footwear and clothing, cancelled its Auckland Cup Week Long Lunch and postponed its Mancation event.

But while dollars are harder to come by, the demand for KidsCan's assistance is growing by the day. The list of schools asking for help from KidsCan used to be three a month; now it is three a week. The 102 schools that already receive help from the three-year-old national charity are overshadowed by the 132 schools still waiting for assistance.

Vasso Koutsos, KidsCan marketing manager, admits that times are tough and it's the sponsored events that are struggling.

"It's the number of chosen attendees at an event that is revisited or it's saying let's do that in the new financial year. And that's absolutely fine because everybody is running back to their budgets and, considering the amount of redundancies that are going on out there. It's what makes sense."

That's not to say KidsCan has turned its back on the event format. There are high hopes for what they say will be New Zealand's biggest charity event of 2009 a return to the golden days of fundraising with a telethon called "The Big Night In". The format has been absent from our screens for 15 years but KidsCan is promising to rekindle the fond memories of several generations.

On August 8 and 9, TV3 will host the 21.5 hours of fundraising that will, of course, embrace song, dance, and entertainment which appeal to the giving nature of Kiwis.

"It is almost like New Zealand comes together for a moment in time for a good cause," Koutsos says. "What we really want to say to New Zealand is it's not actually about how much. It's about doing something. If every one puts in a couple of dollars, that changes a life."

It is just one of the ways charities are being creative about persuading the public to make contributions individual donations still make up the bulk of charitable dollars.

KidsCan also works alongside designers to produce an annual charity jandal, while the Child Cancer Foundation has used a symbolic bead campaign to grab public interest. The campaigns succeed partly due to that fact that they all involve an element of return that suits the market.

Having a high-profile ambassador can also give a charity a much-needed edge. Although a David in the charity world, KidsCan has some Goliath names behind it, including being the official charity of the All Blacks and support from top designers Zambesi and Caroline Church. Other charity figureheads include designer Karen Walker, who works closely with the Breast Cancer Research Trust, while Hilary Timmins is chief celebrity ambassador for Variety.

And with spare coins increasingly harder to come by, some people are choosing to donate their time instead of cash. "I'd love to give money to charity but times are tough," says 27-year-old Robb Kidd, who has left the workforce to return to student life at AUT. "Volunteering gives me a great sense of satisfaction because I get to share in other people's giving."

His role in the Child Cancer Foundations annual appeal involved arming himself with beads and a bucket on the streets of Auckland. And he's not the only one giving his time when his pockets cannot afford it.

Volunteers increased by 300 percent in the commercial capital for this year's appeal and the flood of bright blue collectors has the charity optimistic it will top last year's $1 million dollar total.

The simple equation of the more buckets equals more money seems to be a winner.

Amid the dark economic news these are the small causes for optimism.

Prime Minister John Key suggested to the Philanthropy New Zealand annual conference recently that tax cuts are not a common occurrence and that charities should be considered as potential beneficiaries.

"I'll be reminding the people I talk to that if they can't bring themselves to spend their tax cuts, there are many organisations who could benefit from their generosity," he said.

About 1.5 million workers received the cuts, injecting an extra $1 billion into the economy in the coming year, a fraction of which could bring relief to the charity sector.

Geoff Scott will be putting his most into the meals he creates at Skycity next weekend as he believes that it's even more important to give when times are tough. "Because today or tomorrow, someone with leukaemia is just as in need whether there is a recession or not," he says. "Just as in need."

Sunday Star Times