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Hugh Hogan feared an election year might make it tougher to do fundraising, but he never thought it could get this bad. With more money being sucked up by the Bush and Kerry campaigns this year than ever before for a presidential election, Hogan’s North Star Fund, a community foundation that supports social justice projects in New York City, has been feeling the loss.

Some donors, including one longtime contributor to North Star, have said they can’t help out this year. “They basically told us they are focusing their giving on the presidential election,” said Hogan. “We were left a little bit stupefied.” North Star has decided to delay its 25th anniversary celebration until after the November election.

North Star is not alone in its concerns. Funds that rely on contributions from individual living donors worry that the huge bill for this year’s political campaigns—$410 million so far for the presidential race alone—is sucking up the dollars and time of many check-writers.

Campaign economists estimate the total cost of this year’s presidential campaign could reach more than $500 million, and that’s not counting congressional, state and city races, or the estimated $104 million in private contributions to the party conventions. It may sound like a drop in the bucket compared to the $240 billion Americans gave to charities last year, but nonprofit watchdogs argue that the impact is significant. “This is going to be by far the costliest election we’ve ever seen,” said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, which tracks philanthropic giving. “The money has got to come from somewhere. Anecdotally, we see that it’s coming out of charity groups.”

Some groups seem to be weathering the season better than others. Big institutions with sophisticated fundraising operations, such as the United Way, report few problems.
Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, points out that charities founded by politicians themselves also soak up funds. “In an election year, the unspent campaign money the politicians have is supposed to be donated to a charity,” said Cohen. “Increasingly, politicians discover that the easiest charities they can donate to are their own charities.” There are more than 40 such politician-backed funds, including Celebrations for Children, which is associated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. That group canceled a planned fundraising gala during the Republican National Convention after coming under fire for using the charity to raise money for political purposes.

Some nonprofit leaders are less worried about losing a few donations this election season than they are about being overpowered year after year by well-funded opposition. “Our biggest concern about it is not that we are going to get less money,” said Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, “but that the folks we represent are really locked out of the process because they cannot contribute to the campaigns.”

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