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Old-line charities feel pinch of Marathon giving

Many area donors focus on victims of attacks

The Walk for Hunger is one of several fund-raising events held in the spring. Some groups say they have lost donors because of fund-raising on behalf of the Marathon bombings.

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

The Walk for Hunger is one of several fund-raising events held in the spring. Some groups say they have lost donors because of fund-raising on behalf of the Marathon bombings.

When word came that the Walk for Hunger, a powerhouse fund-raising event held last week for Project Bread, had fallen well short of its goal, the nonprofit community took quick notice. With its own charity walk coming up, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts quickly sent out an urgent e-mail to a few thousand supporters.

“Please Don’t Let This Happen To Us!” it urged in capital letters.

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The unusually blunt appeal reflects the challenges nonprofits face after last month’s Boston Marathon bombings, from concerns over participating in large public events to fears of “charity fatigue” amid the overwhelming charitable response to victims of the attack.

Support for One Fund Boston, the primary relief effort that has raised nearly $30 million donations and pledges, has “sucked all the oxygen from the fund-raising air,” said Peter Lowy, publisher of massnonprofit.org, a news service for the nonprofit sector.

Paul Schervish, who directs the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, said the decline in giving is understandable given the magnitude of the attacks and the ensuing manhunt, distressing events that pushed all other concerns to the margins.

“It was a dramatic, once-in-a-lifetime drain on attention,” he said.

Nonprofit groups report that the outpouring of financial support for bombing victims has crowded out other donations. But with the charity walk season in full swing, they are redoubling fund-raising efforts to make up for lost time.

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“The week after the bombings we saw a dramatic drop in donations,” said Mary Hull, vice president of development for the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, which is sponsoring its annual walk and run June 2. “But meeting our million-dollar milestone is very critical, and I’m hopeful that we will get there.”

Laurie Martinelli, executive director of the mental illness alliance, said fund-raising for its walk, which typically raises more than half of the group’s annual budget, was well behind pace last week.

But the last minute fund-raising plea to 4,000 supporters — warning “The drop in donors and walkers caused by the tragedy at the Boston Marathon threatens our success” — paid off. By the end of Saturday’s walk the alliance had caught up with last year’s level of fund-raising for this time of year. That was a relief.

“Things came to a halt,” the week of the bombings, she said. “There was a big drop.”

Carolyn White, a 60-year-old from Cambridge in her fifth year of raising money for the alliance, sent her first fund-raising note to about 75 friends in late March, and soon had received more than $1,000. But after the bombings, she received just two donations.

“After April 15, they stopped,” she said.

White considered sending a second message as a reminder, but thought better of it.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to,” she said.

A few days ago, after getting some advice from a friend, she decided to send a fund-raising message to a broader group. The donations came in again, more than $1,200 in all.

“My friend told me to give people the opportunity to show their goodness,” she said. “And they did.”

White’s experience suggests that recent fund-raising struggles are likely to subside in time, as they have after natural disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010 or Hurricane Sandy, that draw a vast public response.

“This is a short-term effect,” Lowy said. “As we move forward and things recede, people will resume their normal fundraising.”

Michael Nilsen, a spokesman for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, said large-scale relief efforts may hurt local campaigns for a time, but that many donors find a way to increase their contributions.

“Typically, it’s a very short-term impact,” he said. “We find people go a little above and beyond.”

Some nonprofits said they didn’t expect overall fund-raising to decline significantly, saying loyal donors recognize that the need for charitable programs remains keen.

“Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t go away,” said Meryl Sheriden, chief development officer for Horizons for Homeless Children, which is hosting its fourth annual Route for Kids 5k Run/Walk on May 18. “We’re feeling pretty stable right now.”

Hull said she remains optimistic that fund-raising will rebound. Noting the outpouring of support for the Marathon victims and the city’s resilience in the face of the bombings, she said people will renew their backing of worthy causes.

“Boston is such a generous city,” she said. “And I think this community wants to stand up for what it believes in.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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