The Kansas City Mayor’s Christmas Tree fund slumped badly and lost money in 2014.
But it has since rebounded, and a Christmas in July fundraiser this month is aimed at getting the 2016 holiday charity season off to a good start.
“This is a new initiative,” said Quentin Savwoir, Mayor Sly James’ special assistant for public policy and the point person on the Christmas Tree Fund.
Savwoir said if the fund can raise $25,000 in small increments in July, that blitz will provide a head start into the main fundraising season, from September through year’s end. Donations are spent on toys for needy children and gift cards for low-income seniors and the disabled.
The Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund is one of Kansas City’s oldest holiday traditions, dating to 1878. It was especially successful from the 1960s through the 1990s, led by business and civic leader Jerry Cohen, who died in 2003.
It is best known for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony every year on the day after Thanksgiving. This year’s tree arrives at Crown Center on Nov. 3, and the lighting ceremony is Nov. 25.
Since James was elected mayor in 2011 the fund has generally raised more than $82,000 per year, and revenues have exceeded expenses. But that wasn’t the case in the fiscal year that ended April 30, 2015. That year, the fund raised only $34,496, the lowest amount since before 2008. Expenses were $66,485, so the fund lost $31,989.
Savwoir explained that 2014-15 was a City Council election year and many donors were tapped out from contributing to campaigns. But he said the Christmas Tree fund regrouped and raised $89,156 for this fiscal year that ended April 30. Expenses were $65,691. The fund’s ending cash balance, counting prior year surpluses, was $164,186.
“The fund is not broke,” said Savwoir, who started in his job March 2015 and presided over the fund’s recovery over the past year.
For the 2015 holiday season, the fund gave away 1,000 gift cards of $40 each to needy citizens over age 60 and to those with disabilities.
It also purchased 3,000 toys at a cost of about $16,000. Of those, 1,700 were distributed to kids at nine holiday parties put on by the Kansas City parks department. The other 1,300 toys went to four nonprofits for distribution: Healing Pathways, Niles Home for Children, Ronald McDonald House and Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Parks spokeswoman Heidi Downer said the toy donation, while not part of the department’s core mission, is worthwhile.
“Sometimes it is the only toy these kids get,” she said.
Savwoir, who has a fundraising background from prior jobs, said the “Christmas in July” blitz is designed to put the fund in an even stronger position. A suggested donation is $1 per day or $31 for the month.
“One of my mandates was to enhance the exposure of the fund,” he said. “My feeling is, having grown up in this city, so many people don’t know who and how the fund helps people. They see the Christmas tree and that’s the extent of it.”
The fund is working with Mix 93.3 for radio and digital advertising. A new partnership with Kansas City-based AvidMobile allows donations from a smartphone or mobile device by texting the word CHRISTMAS to 72727.
Donations can also be made at kcmayor.org/christmastree or to the mayor’s office at City Hall.
The initiative does cost some taxpayer dollars. Revenues include $25,000 from the mayor’s office, and the parks department budgets $2,000 for each of the nine parties it hosts.
While city government has many more priorities, James said he still believes the Christmas Tree fund is a worthwhile city initiative.
“We’ve got a lot of nonprofits out trying to help people who are disadvantaged,” James said. “You know, it doesn’t hurt for us to model the same type of behavior.”