In a tough year, charitable giving rises this holiday season

The 2017 holiday charitable giving season began on a cheery note, heartening nonprofit executives who feared that donors' wallets were thinned by contributions to disaster relief and that generous spirits would be deadened by depressing news on numerous fronts.

Donations on Giving Tuesday soared 50 percent to more than $274 million as both the number of contributions and gift amounts jumped, according to the 92nd Street Y, a founder of the movement. Giving Tuesday began six years ago as a way to encourage charitable giving just as Black Friday and Cyber Monday promote shopping. It has become the unofficial start of the all-important holiday giving season -- a period of about six weeks during which nonprofits can raise as much as 50 percent of their revenue.

This year, the number of Giving Tuesday donations grew 22 percent to 2 million, while the average gift size increased 11 percent to $111. The amounts include only the digital platforms working with the 92nd Street Y. The actual numbers are likely much higher since 90 percent of donations in the US are still made by check.

It was a relief for some who worried that donors would be tapped out from giving millions of dollars to victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the California wildfires. And while inundated with stories from those horrific events, Americans are also besieged by tales of mass shootings, sexual harassment scandals and unusually bitter political fights.

However, that malaise may have spurred people to donate, said Jessica Schneider, director of strategy and collaboration at Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at 92nd Street Y.

"There is ugliness in the news, and I think that's why people embraced Giving Tuesday," said Schneider. "People are tired of so much negativity. This is an opportunity to do something positive."

The booming stock market has provided some Americans with more cash, and there are signs that they're spreading the wealth. Social Services provider Volunteers of America-Greater New York is holding a gala next week, and so far it has raised $30,000 more than it did last year.

"People want to share the bounty," said Rachel Weinstein, VOA-GNY's vice president and chief development officer. "I'm very optimistic."

Some are wary despite the Giving Tuesday results.

"I think it is a great sign, a positive signal," said Anne Marie Dougherty, executive director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which supports injured veterans and their families.

The Foundation raised $12,000 on Giving Tuesday, up 20 percent from last year up. It also gained more followers on its social media platforms, giving it a broader reach for its messaging and solicitations.

"I think the donor fatigue is real," she said, adding that while Giving Tuesday brings in donations of around $100, it is the gifts of $10,000 or more that play the most vital role in funding the organization.

Dougherty said she needs to raise about $2 million in the next six weeks, roughly $500,000 more than last year. She believes the foundation will succeed, though it will be challenging.

As with Giving Tuesday, nonprofits are trying to be innovative with their end-of-year fundraising campaigns to stand out among all the other organizations asking for donations.

VOA-GNY participated in Giving Tuesday for the first time this year and hoped to set itself apart by asking for donations for a specific program: Burt and Barbara's Gifts of the Heart. Named after a couple who met at a VOA-GNY home for adults with developmental disabilities, it provides holiday and birthday presents to the elderly who otherwise wouldn't receive anything. It began featuring its campaign, which included a video of the couple, in early November, and by the end of the month it had received 22 gifts and $1,095, up from six gifts and $230 last year.

Weinstein called the results a modest success and said next year the organization would invest more energy and thought into the campaign. This year, Weinstein said she was especially focused on securing enticing auction items to be sold at the VOA-GNY gala. Guests attending the soiree will have an opportunity to bid on "Hamilton" tickets that include a backstage tour and a luxury Florida vacation.

"We think we're going to have a really good night because we have great auction items," said Weinstein.

The Bob Woodward Foundation will be holding an auction for the first time this year, and to differentiate itself, it will be selling unique experiences instead of tangible objects. Dougherty said she used every connection she could find to high-profile individuals willing to donate their time to the foundation. Lunch with General George Casey, a retired four-star general who was the 36th Chief of Staff for the US Army, and a reading by Katherine Paterson, author of "Bridge to Terabithia," are among the offerings.

Said Dougherty: "We want to give people an opportunity to bid on something they ordinarily couldn't buy."