It took 99 attempts, over a span of 99 holiday seasons through wars and economic depressions, but on Wednesday, the all-male Good Fellows Club reached a remarkable milestone – raising more than a half million dollars to help the working poor in 2016.
More than 1,500 members and guests packed into a 40,000-square-foot ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center and complied with Good Fellows President Frank Dowd IV’s urgings, dropping enough money into the sacks of several “bag boys” to meet Dowd’s “stretch goal.”
By a lot. All told, $532,178 was raised, including $70,000 from corporate sponsorships that will pay for the luncheon and the charity’s office that employs two part-time staffers, said Dowd, who is chairman of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry.
That total bests last year’s $458,807 – a 16 percent jump.
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“I’m delighted to not have any egg on my face and break through the $500,000 barrier,” he said. “By getting those corporate sponsorships to pay for the luncheon and administrative costs, that means that everything raised (Wednesday) will go to helping the working poor.”
Donations have gone up dramatically over the past 10 years. In 2004, the group raised $171,556. In the years that followed, the giving rose each year except in 2008 and 2009, while the country was under a deep recession.
A club of 1,700 business and civic leaders, Good Fellows started in 1917 in a men’s Sunday school class at Charlotte’s Second Presbyterian Church. It evolved into a charity that has raised millions to help the working poor who often can’t get aid at other nonprofits.
Certainly the fact that it’s been around for long is impressive. It’s hard to maintain interest in these clubs. If they had tried to make it bigger, they’d probably not have pulled it off this long.
Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, on Good Fellows Club
There are other charities that raise the bulk of yearly donations at special events. But Good Fellows’ longevity is what surprised Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based CharityWatch, a group that evaluates and rates charities for donors.
“Certainly the fact that it’s been around for so long is impressive,” Borochoff said. “It’s hard to maintain interest in these clubs. If they had tried to make it bigger, they’d probably not have pulled it off this long.”
Much of Good Fellows’ money goes to pay rent or mortgages for families facing eviction. A good chunk is spent each year to keep the power on for working families.
Before the money was collected, Charlotte banker Brett Carter told the club about Marvin Johnson, his wife and four daughters. The family needed help with rent and utilities after Johnson lost his job at Amtrak last year.
While he looked for another, his sister suddenly went into a coma as her son was born, and soon died. Then his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Johnson’s wife had a part-time job but didn’t make enough money to pay bills. They quickly went through savings.
They found Good Fellows, which helped with rent and utilities.
“Not having anyone to turn to is very difficult for a father proud of his four daughters, proud of his family,” Carter said. “Good Fellows helped him weather the storm by allowing his bills to be met.
“I’ve never felt so connected to an organization as strongly as I did when I was sitting in their living room.”
Charlotte car dealer Felix Sabates, a partner in a NASCAR team, told the group of his meeting with a single mother raising her 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. The mother, Nicole Mitchell, is a nurse who lost her third-shift job last year. She needed the late shift because she home-schooled her children.
Mitchell got behind on rent and utilities, and “we were able to help her and her children get back on track.”
This is what you people do here. This is the only organization I know in the world that meets once a year for 1
Good Fellow member Felix Sabates
“This is what you people do here,” Sabates said. “This is the only organization in the world that meets once a year for 1 1/2 hours. You dig deep into your pockets – and BOOM! – you help a lot of families.”
As the bag boys worked the crowd – among them Gov. Pat McCrory – developers Johnny Harris and Peter Pappas continued a luncheon tradition, entertaining the crowd with North Carolina and Charlotte-flavored humor.
Many of the quips were about the Panthers’ unbeaten season so far:
“Cam Newton’s playing so well he’s taken up a celebration dance called The Dab,” Harris said. “He’s already got every team in the NFL dabbing … tears from their eyes.”
About Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly, Harris quipped: “He’s so good I hear CATS Transit is trying to hire him. They want him to help stop runaway street cars.”
Ultimately, their jabs turned to local politics:
Pappas: “What’s all this fuss over building a couple of toll roads up to the lake?”
Harris: It’s simple, people prefer FREE-ways.”
To former City Council member and bag boy Andy Dulin, Pappas asked about retiring state Sen. Bob Rucho: “Hey Andy, I hear Bob Rucho is leaving the legislature. What’s he going to do now?”
Dulin: “What I heard is that he’s going to go back to his job as a dentist. Where he can continue to inflict pain.”
On Thursday, the all-female Good Friends get their chance to raise even more money to help those in need.
The Empty Stocking Fund
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. Last year, readers contributed nearly $374,000 to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone’s memory or honor, we’ll print that person’s name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund/. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. For questions about your donation, call 704-358-5520. For questions about helping families, call Salvation Army Donor Relations: 704-714-4725.
Total raised so far: $173,115