Mayor’s Christmas Tree charity fund off to a fast start

By shaving expenses and tapping big donors, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Association is on track to nearly double money raised for the needy this holiday season.

“We started early and we tried a different approach,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James told reporters gathered Wednesday at Crown Center beneath the 100-foot Douglas fir that is the symbol of the 103-year-old charity.

Firefighters will be collecting donations there this Friday during the annual tree lighting ceremony, which begins at 5:30 p.m.

But some big donations have already come in. James’ new approach was to jumpstart fundraising by enlisting the aid of five wealthy families that could be counted on to donate or raise $5,000 to $10,000 each.

So far, they’ve contributed $42,500, double what the fund took in from cash contributions all of last year under then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser. Overall contributions in fiscal 2010 totaled $49,733 with the help of proceeds from the sale of wooden ornaments that Hallmark Cards makes from the trunks of each year’s tree.

This season the fund is expected to raise as much as $80,000, James spokesman Danny Rotert said. Some $52,000 of that will be distributed to needy families in the form of Wal-Mart gift cards and to pay for holiday parties at all 10 Kansas City community centers. The rest will go toward building the reserves and to help out charities, such as City Union Mission, throughout the year.

Last year, the fund made gifts totaling $28,550

While an improvement, this year’s take is still far short of the $200,000 that was raised and spent each year in the mid-1990s under fund manager Jerry Cohen. He raised money and dispensed gifts to the unfortunate year round for four decades. Receipts fell off sharply after his death in 2003 during the Kay Barnes administration.

Upon taking office in 2007, Funkhouser vowed to make it more successful, but failed to do so. Last year, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Association spent $5,000 more on fund raising and the lighting ceremony than it took in.

By contrast, expenses this year are expected to total around $11,000. James attributed the reduction to the change in strategy – by relying on bigger donors, there was less need for printing and paid advertising, for instance — and to his ability to get many services donated, such as Friday’s performance by R&B singer Janelle Monae. Also performing is the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, with fireworks to follows.

In addition to his personal pledge of $10,000, James received commitments from the families of Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, banker Mariner Kemper and businessmen Ollie Gates, Charles Garney and Frank Ellis, his office said.