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As retailers rejoice, charities struggle; Stores are reporting suprisingly strong sales this Christmas season. And yet, agencies are facing grim projections of shortfalls as December winds down.

The Salvation Army's narrow window of opportunity is closing quickly.

The agency known worldwide for its annual red kettle holiday collection has just three days of bell ringing left.

And yet, between its kettle effort and direct mail campaign, the organization's Buffalo chapter is more than $100,000 behind where it had hoped to be.

"We're down considerably," said Maj. Thomas Applin, coordinator of the Salvation Army in Buffalo. "It's important for us to do as well as we can at Christmas time, because it's pretty lean the rest of the year."

While many area retailers have been rejoicing over what appears to be a strong holiday shopping season, some charitable organizations are having a tougher time getting donors to open their checkbooks.

The Buffalo City Mission is seeing fewer and smaller gifts in its annual fall campaign. Roswell Park Cancer Institute's annual fund donations are down nearly 20 percent this year. And Compeer of Greater Buffalo is running short in its fundraising efforts.

"This year, we've definitely seen a decline. We're struggling a bit," said Betsy Gemerek, director of development for Compeer, which matches volunteer mentors to people with mental illness. "I don't see that we're going to make our goal, but I'm hopeful."

The holiday season is a crucial time for charitable organizations, some of which receive as much as half to two-thirds of their gifts in the last six to eight weeks of the calendar year.

"It's a passionate and emotional time of the year. As a result, people think in a more committed way about how they can be helpful," said Michael Weiner, president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County.

Perhaps no agency depends more on the holiday spirit than the Salvation Army, when its bellringers become omnipresent outside stores.

"That's kind of our time of year," said Applin. "We're most visible then, but that money is used all year long."

Applin wasn't sure how to explain the dramatic shortfall his organization is facing.

A significant number of past donors have yet to respond to the Salvation Army's annual Christmas appeal mailing, which was sent out at the end of October, he said.

The kettle campaign was about $10,000 behind the pace of the 2010 effort, which brought in $320,000. The organization hoped to raise $450,000 from the kettles this year and another $400,000 from mail-in gifts.

"Nothing is impossible, but it seems improbable at this point," said Applin.

The Buffalo City Mission, also closely associated with holiday giving, was struggling as well.

Some donors were giving less so they could contribute to several different organizations, said Aubrey Calhoun, spokeswoman for the City Mission.

"We have some people who write in and apologize that they can't give more," she said. "You hear a number of stories where people want to give more, but they just can't."

The City Mission is trying to raise $1.9 million in its annual fall campaign, which began Oct. 1 and runs through the end of the year.

It's too early to tell whether the agency will meet the goal, said Calhoun, who noted that the final two days of 2011 usually make the difference.

Some charitable organizations were holding their own.

Just a few months ago, the Food Bank of Western New York was concerned by the trickling pace of donations. But in recent weeks, contributions have picked up, said President Marylou Borowiak.

"We think we're going to end the year slightly ahead of last year," she said.

"People have been very generous this year," added Linda Tatu, co-founder and president of Harvest House of South Buffalo, which provides free baby and children's clothing and furnishings, among other services. "I'm not bemoaning the fact that things are down. I think because the need is greater, the donations have increased."

At the WNY Holiday Partnership -- a collaboration of The News Neediest Fund and more than a dozen organizations that provides toys for area children -- giving remained steady from 2010.

"Better than I thought it would be," said Hope Santonocito, who oversees the partnership. "I didn't know what to expect, but people have been very generous."

Still, no one suggested 2011 was a banner year for fundraising.

Across the country, 59 percent of charitable organizations reported that fundraising results through the first three quarters of 2011 were either the same or less than in 2010, according to a study by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative.

Smaller organizations -- defined as those with expenditures below $3 million -- were more likely to have received decreased amounts in charitable gifts, the study found.

Despite middling results in most of 2011, charitable groups were somewhat optimistic about year-end giving, with 70 percent expecting it to increase or stay the same, compared with fourth-quarter giving in 2010, according to the study.

"All the philanthropy magazines say the largest flux is in the last two days of the year," said Tatu. "Call me back in January and we'll see."

A national poll in October by the American Red Cross also found respondents were more likely to economize on travel and holiday presents than on donations to charities.

Kara Hite, senior director of advancement for the American Red Cross, Greater Buffalo Chapter, said the organization seemed to be on pace or a "little behind" last year's numbers.

Like many area fundraisers, Hite won't know for certain until the year ends. Variables such as the Japanese tsunami in March could come into play with local Red Cross givers.

"If someone gave $50 for Japan, they might consider that their gift for the year," she said. "It's a waiting game right now."

Could holiday shoppers be pointing the way to what charitable organizations can expect next week? Hite and other fundraisers hope so.

"If the holiday spending at stores is any indication," she said, "then maybe we'll be OK."

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com