FAIRFIELD — If you guessed that a local food pantry’s cash crisis was solved by big-name donors and large foundations, you’d be wrong.
Instead, the money might have come from your neighbor, and your neighbor might be keeping it a secret.
Over the holiday season, Fairfield’s least fortunate were given a boost by a pair of anonymous donors, the latest example of a trend toward anonymous giving from people with local ties.
An early December pledge of $25,000 was matched with another $25,000 donation later that month, giving leaders and clients of the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry new hope in their quest to find a new, permanent home from which they can continue to feed the poor.
In the 20 years since it was founded, the pantry’s 50 active volunteers have distributed food to individuals 68,000 times.
One person who will benefit from the donations is area resident Joe Lessard, 49, who has been coming to the pantry for years.
“They really help you out a lot,” he said. “I’m glad for that.”
Ever since the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church closed in 2011, the suddenly homeless pantry has struggled in temporary housing at the First Baptist Church of Newhall Street.
The pantry’s volunteers appreciate the use of the space, co-director Nancy Marcoux said, but it is far from ideal, with operations spilling out onto the lawn and quarters so cramped that pastors dispense counseling services from inside a narrow bathroom.
The space is not only inconvenient, but it also creates privacy concerns, as people waiting for help are often within earshot of those who are engaged in conversations with the pastor on duty.
The pantry’s fortunes took a turn for the better when it received a donation of a small, abandoned warehouse behind the Town Office and the Gerald Hotel, part of a larger plan to renovate the hotel into a senior housing project.
But the building is currently inadequate to house the pantry. It needs water, heat, a new roof and significant repairs to windows and entryways, work that will cost as much as $150,000.
When they started looking for funds early last year, Marcoux and Louella Bickford, the pantry volunteer in charge of the fundraising campaign, said she expected support to come from large, well-known retailers like Walmart, celebrities like Stephen King and charitable foundations, like the Harold Alfond Foundation.
They were wrong.
Bickford said all of the donors either live or have lived in Fairfield and maintain strong ties to the community.
“I thought when we first started that Stephen King and all these big businesses would help us,” Bickford said. “It wasn’t that. It was all the small people.”
When the fundraising campaign was begun last year, many local businesses gave. Lawrence High School students raised money for the cause. An envelope with five dollars in it showed up at the Lawrence Public Library, where Bickford works.
And then there were individuals who stepped forward, sometimes giving until it hurt.
“Some people gave me a hundred,” Bickford said. “I thought they could use it more than we could.”
The fundraising campaign raised $50,000 fairly quickly.
But as the first round of enthusiasm passed and those closest to the pantry were tapped, the flow of donations dried up. Over the second half of 2013, only $8,000 more was raised, a sluggish pace that would have put the goal nearly five years away.
The dry spell dragged on, from weeks to months.
Maine can be a difficult place to raise a dollar. A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently ranked Maine 49th of 50 states in giving, with those making between $50,000 and $100,000 donating an average of 3.3 percent of discretionary income, “a rate much lower than for people in other states with the same level of income.”
But finally, in early December, something changed.
An anonymous donor contacted the pantry and said he’d like to donate $25,000 in matching funds with the understanding that the pantry would keep his name secret.
In late December, the pantry received another $25,000 from another man who also wanted his name kept secret.
The twin donations, plus a flurry of other contributions from business leaders and volunteer organizations, have catapulted the total amount raised to more than $113,000. Other groups have pledged to donate time and materials to the renovation.
And just like that, the pantry project is back on target.
Exact costs of the project and the exact amount of donated supplies and labor aren’t yet known, but the pantry may now have everything it needs to move into the new home, according to Bickford.
Marcoux said she was touched when she realized where the donations were coming from. “It’s bringing our community together,” she said. “It really warms my heart.”
While the campaign has certainly been a community effort, without those twin $25,000 anonymous donations, the goal would still be discouragingly far away.
Most big donors don’t mind their good deeds being known.
During a 10-year span ending in 2010, anonymous individual gifts totaled about $7.4 billion in the United States, according to Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy.
It sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s only 5 percent of the $564 billion total given by individuals over that time period.
But there’s something about anonymous donations that excites the public imagination.
The idea that someone is doing good without any expectation of personal gain or credit is heartwarming and routinely makes headlines.
There are no shortage of reports of these furtive acts of kindness.
In December, an anonymous donor paid for $25,000 in layaway bills at an Ohio retail store, and on Christmas Eve, a donor sent $10,000 worth of flowers to a retirement home in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Then there are the really major gifts.
On Wednesday, a Swedish charity received an anonymous check for $150,000 in a donation milk jar, while on Thursday, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth received an anonymous gift of more than $1 million.
The School of Philanthropy reported that most anonymous gifts go to higher education institutions, with only 5 percent, or $360 million, going to human services or groups that benefit public society, like the food pantry.
That was certainly the case in 2011, when Unity College received an anonymous gift of $10 million, tripling the institution’s endowment.
Anonymous donations, and the reasons behind them, are the subject of research for those who study the act of giving.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy found a connection between anonymous giving and the economy. The worse the economy, the more likely a donor is to remain anonymous.
The percentage of anonymous giving spiked when the economy tanked in 2008, from a historic rate of about 5 percent to more than 18 percent.
The Chronicle speculated that the anonymous donors may wish to avoid appeals for money from other charities, or that they don’t want to advertise their own wealth when others are facing tough times.
Marcoux said some donors are just uncomfortable with the spotlight.
“They just don’t want to have people say, âlook at him, he’s done good, blah blah blah,'” she said.
The pantry’s experiences also demonstrate a different fact documented by the Chronicle, which found that nearly two thirds of individual donations are given within the state of the donor.
Marcoux said the pantry’s donors are helping because they have personal knowledge of the good the pantry does.
“I think they just want to do a good deed, and they don’t want to blow their horn,” Marcoux said. “They have a lot of faith in the pantry. They come from Fairfield; they know what the pantry does.”
Donations bring results
Lessard said he has relied on the pantry’s help for years. He used to work stocking shelves at Waterville’s Ames department store, now closed, where he made $6.10 an hour, until he hurt his back.
Now, he and his fiancee of four years, who plan to marry this spring, get by on their disability checks. Every month, he said, they receive food stamps on the 15th, but there comes a time when the family’s food runs out.
He’s grateful for the food pantry, he said. Without it, he’s not sure where he would turn to supplement his food budget.
“I tell them thank you very much, and God bless them,” he said.
Now, the pantry hopes to begin renovations soon. The local VFW, a big supporter, has pledged to buy the new building’s rafters.
If there’s a January thaw, work could begin on the roof sometime this month, pantry leaders said.
Marcoux said that, while the funding came from unexpected sources, she’s learned a lesson, and now she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I would rather have it come from somebody who comes from within the community,” Marcoux said. “They’re giving it back to the community that they come from.”