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Charity leaders offer tips for tough economy, holiday season

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  • NEW: The leaders of 11 national organizations talk about aspects of charitable giving
  • Donating your time, whether to a non-profit or just your neighbor, is a valuable gift
  • Many organizations may face a shortage in donations even as services increase
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(CNN) -- Recession questions, housing bailouts, stock market tumbles, growing job losses -- faced with troubling economic news at seemingly every turn, many Americans' first thoughts may be of their own finances before charitable giving.

Volunteers prepare in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, in September.

Volunteers prepare in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, in September.

The Giving USA Foundation found in a study this year that donations don't keep up with the rate of inflation during recessions. And about a third of Americans think the situations facing the stock market and financial institutions will affect them immediately, but another third think it will affect them eventually, according to an October CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll.

CNN talked with the leaders of six charitable organizations to see what they're doing to address the tough economic times and what everyday folks can do to make a difference, even without spending a dime.

How is your charitable organization addressing the tough economy and perhaps a higher demand for their services?

JIM GIBBONS, president and CEO of GOODWILL INDUSTRIES: At Goodwill, we understand that to be successful at work, everyone needs to feel confident that their families are healthy and safe and that their home life is stable. One of Goodwill's priorities is our Family Strengthening Initiative. Our goal is to assess individual family needs and provide access to community resources such as youth programs and childcare so that people can stabilize their families while identifying and obtaining employment opportunities. In addition, we provide financial education and asset development services, including money-management skills, to help people learn how to manage their money and save for the future.

Another way Goodwill aids families is by helping them to earn a paycheck and take full advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit program. Through EITC, Goodwill agencies across the country provide free tax preparation services for working families with children that have annual incomes below $37,000 and who are eligible for a refundable tax credit.

JONATHAN RECKFORD, CEO of HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL: Low-income families are in need now, perhaps more than ever, of access to affordable housing. We are asking people to donate to Habitat's work, to join us as an advocate for affordable housing or to volunteer time to help build houses or serve on a local committee.

Habitat is also developing innovative partnerships across the country. One example is that along the Gulf Coast, Habitat has partnered with the Salvation Army to build even more houses in areas that are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Another example is that Habitat has joined with the not-for-profit organization Thrivent Financial for Lutherans to develop an alliance with its local chapters that have helped to build more than 1,000 houses in the United States since 2005. We are also forming new partnerships, like those with for-profit homebuilders who are developing mixed-income communities that leave room for affordable housing, including Habitat housing. These efforts, among many others, will help Habitat build more homes and serve more families. Our diverse family of Habitat affiliates across the United States is constantly innovating to meet the challenges they face every day, including during the current economic climate.

HELENE GAYLE, president and CEO of CARE: Meaningful partnerships, with the public and the private sector, become even more important in economically challenging times. Fortunately, we have been able to connect with an increasing number of corporations, foundations and individual philanthropists who are eager to devote time and resources to the fight against poverty. Issues such as climate change, the global food crisis, the financial upheaval can increase attention to the plight of vulnerable people; it is our responsibility to help tell their stories and to support them in their efforts to build a better life for themselves and their families. We also are preparing to build new partnerships within the new administration to ensure a continued commitment from the U.S. government to the fight against poverty.

NANCY LUBLIN, CEO of DOSOMETHING.ORG: We just launched a Growth Capitalization Offering, similar to a for-profit IPO. We are bringing the accountability and transparency of the free market to the not-for-profit sector.

AL BRANDEL, president of LIONS CLUBS INTERNATIONAL: Even before the current economic challenge, we were working on plans to make volunteering as part of a Lions Club easier to do. For example, the fastest-growing type of new Lion Club members are families that join as a group. In 2007, we were the first service club organization to offer a family membership plan and to provide hands-on service programs that involve the entire family. We not only made it easier for families to join by offering a reduced membership fee, but many local Lions Clubs -- some 45,000 worldwide -- are changing when they meet and what projects they run to accommodate today's busier families. We are really excited about this approach because volunteering often becomes a lifetime commitment for a person when they are exposed to it as children. And in these uncertain times, we obviously need more people to give back to their communities and to help others need.

BRIAN GALLAGHER, president and CEO of UNITED WAY: Live United is a call to action for all people to join this movement. We want everyone to see themselves as part of the change needed in our communities. We're making greater use of technology to provide opportunities for people to give, advocate and volunteer. Our Web site has simple ways for people to tell their stories, to give locally, nationally or globally, to find volunteer opportunities and to make their voices heard on critical issues. We've partnered with several online communities to help spread the word about Live United and with technology partners to offer a cell phone text-to-give option.

CHARLES W. GOULD, President and CEO, VOLUNTEERS OF AMERICA: We are working to expand our core group of donors and engage more young people who traditionally have been less inclined to give on a regular basis. This effort has included expanding our online presence and being more web-focused in our communications. We hope these newly engaged young donors also will represent a new base of volunteers to aid our programs nationwide. We hope to instill a new mindset of community service that will last a lifetime.

ROXANNE SPILLETT, President and CEO, BOYS & GIRLS CLUBS OF AMERICA: Financially, this is truly a tough time for all. BGCA is increasing the number of ''asks'' it makes to donors; increasing its stewardship calls to top givers; and increasing face-to-face meetings with contributors. Additionally, we are putting together a white paper alerting Clubs on anticipated funding cutbacks, and the need for stepping up fund-raising activities. But we have a strong, dedicated staff of youth development professionals who are doing what they can to ensure our focus remains on our most powerful and important asset -- our kids.

DARRELL HAMMOND, CEO, KaBOOM!: There are many things that have become too expensive for household budgets. Luckily, play is free. In this time of added economic challenge, KaBOOM! will continue to provide quality, free online tools and resources to organizations, families and individuals who want to bring play back into the lives of their children. The KaBOOM! online toolkit and webinars allow individuals across the country to learn from our 13 years of experience, network with other project leaders and get inspired to change the face of play in their community.

JAMES E. WILLIAMS JR., President and CEO, EASTER SEALS: Building from our expertise, we are responding to real needs and focusing on four service areas of critical importance: young children, older adults, people living with autism, and military service members and veterans. And, we are creating intergenerational programs, where our youngest and oldest participants learn from and enjoy each other.

NEIL NICOLL, President and CEO, YMCA OF THE USA: YMCAs have been at our best when the nation has faced its toughest challenges, and today we are proud to be able to provide what kids, families and individuals need in times of stress and strain: a warm and welcoming environment, supportive communities, and many opportunities for people to improve their health and well-being. The YMCA is an organization steeped in innovation, having invented basketball, English as a Second Language classes and even Father's Day, among many other things that are woven into the fabric of American life. Since 1853, YMCAs have been an integral part of African-American communities and helped play an important role in the struggle for civil rights. But when it comes to supporting people who need help, we do what we've been doing for nearly 160 years in communities across the country: Innovating and adapting to help kids, families and individuals grow and stay strong.

If people are short on cash this holiday season, what are some alternatives to monetary donations?

DOSOMETHING.ORG: You might not have money to spend this holiday, but you definitely have time and energy. Use it well. Search our action matrix for something to do with your family or at your church or with your basketball team. Make a difference ... and have fun doing it with people you love.

GOODWILL: This holiday season, people should think of Goodwill when cleaning out their closets. Goodwill accepts an array of gently used products including clothing, household goods, kitchenwares and furniture. Some Goodwill agencies even accept vehicles. Donors should check the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site before donating to make sure they don't have any unsafe or recalled items.

UNITED WAY: Consider volunteering as a family. Community service is an effective way to teach children about social issues, to show them a different perspective of the world, to advance the common good and to understand that the world is a better place when we care for one another. While enjoying quality family time, you're also teaching positive values, creating a new generation of volunteers and increasing your family's commitment to community.

LIONS CLUB: Give your time. If you can't afford to buy a gift for a loved one, make a point to do something special for that person or persons in your life that doesn't involve spending money. If possible, encourage your children to spend an hour doing something special for their grandparents. Give your spouse an hour of your undivided attention. You can even print up your own "gift certificates" redeemable for one hour of your time. Be creative. Nothing dictates that a gift has to be of a material nature. It's important to remember that simple acts of kindness are heroic.

CARE: Instead of buying gifts, people can make a contribution to a charitable organization in a loved one's name. They can also volunteer -- alone or with family and friends -- with organizations that provide direct services. And they can host gatherings to share information with others through film and printed materials about the impact of poverty on half the world's population: people who live on less than $2 a day. Even small contributions can make a huge difference.

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY: There are many possibilities. A family or group of friends could help build a Habitat house in their community or join their local Habitat affiliate to host a fundraiser I read of where a family sold their house, downsized into a smaller home and donated some of the proceeds to support Habitat's work in Ghana. Of course, many individual supporters give smaller gestures of support, but the spirit is the same. People can always reach out respectfully and compassionately to those near and far who need a hand up.

EASTER SEALS: People with disabilities are just like everyone else, but too often they say they feel socially isolated. Including a friend or a neighbor with a disability in your holiday activities would be a wonderful gift and maybe even the beginning of a new friendship.

YMCA OF THE USA: Give your time and talent. Volunteer. Be a mentor. Serve the community in some way. Reach out to people in need. Spend meaningful time with family and friends. All of these activities-and many, many more-have the capacity to make the world around you a better place. The options for giving are limitless. If you spend some time thinking about the needs of your community, it won't be long before you come up with a way to do good.

VOLUNTEERS OF AMERICA: Many families have integrated community service into their Holiday traditions. As a group, families can deliver Holiday Meals on Wheels to the elderly, collect toys and clothes for children in need, or serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless.

KaBOOM!: This holiday season, give the gift of your time to the children of your community. Organize a community playground clean-up or refurbishment to improve a lackluster playspace. Create a neighborhood playground watch-group to add safety to once deserted playspaces. Host a meet-n-greet with other folks in your community to talk about what projects you can take on in the coming year.

BOYS & GIRLS CLUBS OF AMERICA: Encourage family members and friends to volunteer at a local nonprofit. The lesson learned there could be far more impactful than any gift could be. To see a need or a problem and be part of the solution is far more rewarding. Another option would be to pay the membership for a child to join an organization like a Boys & Girls Club where they can receive equal amounts of hope and opportunity all year-round. (Note: In some cities Boys & Girls Club membership is only $10 a year). It just takes one individual to change the life of a young person.

Tell us about a volunteer in your organization whom you consider a hero.

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY: Personally, I consider every volunteer a hero. Each person who swings a hammer or serves on a committee or sacrifices to make a donation, gives from his or her heart and truly cares about those in need of housing. I find a special inspiration in Habitat's homeowner families who help to build their own home or the home of their neighbors. Habitat homeowners are committed to being part of their own housing solution, and our mission could not continue without them. I've been blessed to meet many of our homeowner partner families around the world and find a true hero in each one.

CARE: Scott Karell, a Boston University junior, comes to mind. A few years ago while helping build a school in Ghana, he was inspired to do more. He's organized events at schools and even at the local library, getting people to talk about their experiences and help educate others about the world around us. He found dozens of people who could also be considered "heroes," from a realtor to a fraternity brother to a professor to a 12-year-old who raised $6,000 for children in Guatemala. Scott once said that "the heroes of this country are the ordinary citizens who have answered the call of service to help others. By volunteering, you are helping out that community and ultimately that society." Young people like Scott are the heroes who are helping make our world a better place.

DOSOMETHING.ORG: Kimmie Weeks should be a household name. He was born in Liberia and was left for dead in a pile of bodies. He lay there thinking, "If I live, I vow to spend the rest of my life helping children in war-torn countries." Fortunately, Kimmie escaped Liberia and kept his promise. His organization, Youth Action International, brings college volunteers from the USA to six countries around the world to help young people reunite with their families and be educated, among other things. Kimmie is 24 years old. He isn't someone we're grooming to lead when he is a "grown-up." He is someone we are proud to follow right now.

LIONS CLUB: That would be difficult, since we have 1.3 million heroes in our organization. But I will relate an incident that best describes what our 1.3 million heroes do on a daily basis. A few years ago, my wife, Maureen, and I helped our Lions Club and others from our community build a home in New York for a family that has one member with a disability. Maureen dug holes to put in a fence. I used a jackhammer in the basement. It was hands-on volunteer work. When we finished the home, the 5-year-old girl in the family took Maureen by the hand and said, "I want to show you my room." She had never had a room of her own, and she was beaming with joy. And so were we. It brought tears of joy to our eyes. Volunteers all over the world are recreating that moment each and every day. Volunteers are heroes. Just ask that 5-year-old girl.

UNITED WAY: Young people who are passionate about making a difference really inspire me. Mike Brooks is a great example of an inspiring and entrepreneurial young leader. As a student at University of Iowa, Mike was highly active in efforts to mobilize student volunteers. He created the 10,000 Hours Show, a campus-based volunteer outreach program that culminates in a free concert for volunteers. Mike is now working with United Way to spread the 10,000 Hours Show, Student United Ways, Alternative Spring Break and the United Way Challenge on Facebook Causes to campuses across the country. Through inspiring young people, Mike embodies Live United.

GOODWILL: Goodwill Industries International named Denice Cooper the 2008 Volunteer of the Year. After escaping New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, Cooper relocated to Texas, where she dedicated herself to helping her fellow evacuees as a volunteer. She decided to continue her service by volunteering at Goodwill, where she spent more than 900 hours mentoring children with mental and emotional disabilities. Today, Cooper provides individual and group mentoring as well as structured activities for children served by Goodwill. She also mentors adults with disabilities who are entering the work force and need ongoing support.

KaBOOM!: Cynthia Gentry organized her Atlanta, GA community using the KaBOOM! online Toolkit. Once she started getting the word out about her playground project, local organizations quickly volunteered tools, services and funding to support her plans. Cynthia has since founded the Atlanta Task Force on Play and spearheaded the process that led to Atlanta's recognition as a Playful City USA community.

EASTER SEALS: Our founder Edgar "Daddy" Allen lived by his words: "Your life and mine shall be valued not by what we take ... but by what we give." He was the first of our incredible heroes. Palmer Harston is one of Easter Seals' heroes today. Her heart, spirit and dedication to service inspire me everyday. In 1995, Palmer, her sister Taylor, and their mother, Julie, were seriously injured in a car accident. Palmer now lives with a complete spinal cord injury that paralyzed her. After the accident, she received Easter Seals' physical and occupational therapy services, learned to use a wheelchair and perform everyday skills. With her hard work and family and friends behind her, Palmer graduated as an Ingram Scholar, a unique program based on academic merit and community service, from Vanderbilt University in May 2008. Now, Palmer is giving back. Over two summer breaks during college, Palmer volunteered at the Lily of the Valley Children's Home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. In August, she moved to South Africa to continue her important volunteer work with the children living at "the Lily," who are orphans with AIDS or TB. Palmer is deferring her aspirations of law school to study adoption law for a year. Palmer is my hero.

VOLUNTEERS OF AMERICA: With about 80,000 volunteers working with us nationwide, it's hard to choose just one. After Hurricane Katrina, we had a number of workers with our New Orleans office who evacuated the city alongside the people under their care. They volunteered their families, homes and personal resources to make sure those in need would continue to receive care during the emergency - in some cases for many weeks. These dedicated heroes opened their hearts and lives, even while their own homes and livelihoods were in doubt. They represent the ultimate volunteering spirit we all hope to find within ourselves.

YMCA OF THE USA: Volunteer founded and volunteer led, YMCAs depend on the generosity and dedication of more than 500,000 volunteers across the U.S. each year. We couldn't keep our doors open without them, so singling one out would be difficult. They are all heroes to us, and that's the great thing about volunteering-everyone can be a hero. The only requirement is a willingness to get involved.

BOYS & GIRLS CLUBS OF AMERICA: I'd like to share with you two volunteers who are doing exceptionally well and just also happen to be Boys & Girls Club alumni:

Liberty Franklin is an astonishing young woman -- determined to make a difference in the lives of so many people, as so many people have done for her. As a teen, she became self-conscious about her teeth which were not aligned correctly. A local dentist heard about her condition and offered to take care of her problem free of charge. The dentist's care inspired her to help others around her, especially the girls at her Club, the Everett Boys & girls Club in Everett, Washington. As she grew older, she took on leadership responsibilities and became a role model for younger Club members. Today, Liberty is in her third year of dental school at the University of Washington. As part of that experience, she assisted at a clinic on a nearby Native American reservation, where she learned about water fluoridation issues on tribal land and helped to provide dental care to an at risk population. Last month, Liberty worked with a group to provide free dental care to rural locals in Jamaica. She did the same in Honduras and Tulalip. All of this while attending school with plans to graduate in June 2009.

When Eddie Armstrong stepped on the scene we were all blown away. A young man with rough edges, he had seen his fare share of hard time. It was just him, his little sister and his mom because his dad had dealings with drugs and alcohol. His mom moved them to Little Rock, Arkansas. With the help and guidance of his mentor, he was named Boys & Girls Clubs of America's National Youth of the Year in 1997 and earned enough scholarship monies to pay for the main costs of his 2001 bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Arkansas. His struggle fed his drive and determination to graduate and go on to bigger and better things. He didn't forget where he came from and went to work for BGCA in the government relations department, giving back to the organization that gave so much to him. A couple years later he landed a great job at Tyson Foods, where he excelled. In 2006, Eddie left his power suit job at Tyson Foods to start his own foundation -- the Eddie Armstrong Scholarship Foundation -- dedicated to providing scholarships to minority students of single-parent homes and attending the University of Arkansas. Eddie believes we must pay it forward and is doing just that.

These are just two shining examples of young heroes within our organization. There are so many, many more

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