STAMFORD -- On Thursday evening, about 40 men trudged in from the cold in search of a hot meal at the Shelter for the Homeless on Pacific Street. As they waited quietly in the cafeteria, three female volunteers from the Congregational Church of New Canaan were racing around the kitchen, pouring cups of juice and unwrapping trays of homemade baked ziti.

"OK guys, we're coming," hollered the group's so-called ringleader, a 15-year veteran volunteer named Linda Twombly. "This is one of their favorite meals," she said, making certain to dole out equal portions.

The New Canaan church is one of about 30 organizations that once a month prepares and serves dinner at the shelter. The volunteer program, which was started by churches, was expanded two years ago when organizers at the Shelter for the Homeless found themselves facing an $80,000 budget deficit. The outreach resulted in securing corporate donors such as UBS, Deloitte and Touche, Ellington Capital Management and Cytec. Although church groups will make the meals themselves, companies will often buy the dinners and enlist its employees to serve it. On almost every night of the week, dinner is provided by an outside organization. The support has erased not only the shelter's deficit, but also continues to shrink its food bill, said Peggy Lutz, the director of development.

Most importantly, Lutz added, "We haven't had to cut our services during this time."

According to a report from the Giving USA Foundation, total donations to charities in America fell 3.6 percent to $303.75 billion between 2008 and 2009, the largest decline in more than 50 years. Facing continued cuts in government funding, the strategy of broadening the base of supporters and expanding the meaning of giving by encouraging more in-kind donations and services is one that is being increasingly embraced by nonprofits.

"People give to people," Lutz said. "That's the key."

While the trend can certainly stem the bleeding for many nonprofits, especially those in the social service sector, it does not necessarily translate into greater funding, according to Ron Cretaro, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits,

"What I've been hearing is that organizations have been having more donations and more volunteers, but not necessarily an increase in money," Cretaro said.

In the case of Stamford Hospital, Chris Riendeau, the senior vice president of fund development, said that while the hospital's foundation saw an increased number of donations this year, the average gift size remained "static."

In particular, he said, corporations have broadened and diversified their giving strategies over the years. While there may still be a large number of gifts from companies, "It's not in that $100,000 or $250,000 range," he said.

During its most recent fiscal year ending this past September, the hospital raised a total of $6 million, a figure that was comparable to the prior year. In the context of the still uncertain economy and high rate of unemployment, matching last year's fundraising can be considered an achievement.

"As they say, flat is the new up," Riendeau said.

Similarly, Jim Vivier, a vice president at Family Centers, a social service agency that serves Lower Fairfield County, said that money raised from its premiere fundraising dinner in June fell only about $1,000 short of the roughly $600,000 the event raised last year.

The organization runs on an annual budget of $10.5 million, of which $3 million must be raised through fundraising.

About $900,000 comes from special fundraising events.

Yet, what might not show up in its budget is a resource of about 1,200 volunteers. Having such support is clearly useful in mobilizing large-scale fundraising initiatives. Next month, Family Center will kick off its annual holiday fundraiser that benefits people living with critical illness and counsels those in bereavement. The effort, called "Hope Light Lives," relies on 500 to 600 volunteers across Stamford and surrounding towns to sell $25 candle kits to residents with the hope of lighting them together on their front lawns Dec. 12.

"It's really a grassroots effort," Vivier said.

Like social service agencies, arts and cultural organizations have also experienced dramatic reductions in government assistance.

Stamford Symphony was forced to deal with the loss of a $95,000 federal grant this year, giving it a grand total of $30,000 in public funding to work with.

Nonetheless, Barbara Smith-Soroca, the symphony's CEO and president, said that the organization appears to be right on target with its $1.3 million budget, of which about 60 percent must be raised from individual and corporate donations as well as government grants.

Just this month, the symphony's fundraising gala brought in about $100,000, which put it in line with last year's event. She said income from performances has remained stable, with a small uptick in repeat ticket sales and a base of subscribers that has remained level.

Smith-Soroca credited a decision made by the symphony about two to three years ago to adopt a "five-town strategy" that seeks to build audiences in not only Stamford, but also Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien and Westport.

"We go to the five towns, and the five towns come to us," she said.

The symphony has also increased its exposure through partnerships with both the city, through eight programs in the Stamford public school system, and performing at benefits for social service organizations like New Covenant House of Hospitality.

Nonetheless, she acknowledged that fundraising has been "a little more challenging" this year.

"It just takes more of an effort and more phone calls," she observed. "Clearly people have other things on their mind in this economy."

While many nonprofits are content to maintain a financial status quo, at least one prominent arts organization has been able to grow its budget amid the downturn. The Connecticut Ballet, which is based in Stamford and operates on a yearly budget of under $1 million, has been increasing its share of earned revenue by offering a greater variety of programming, according to Brett Raphael, president of its board of directors.

"We have the ability to provide services for dollars and that's a value," he said. "If you're a food kitchen, you don't sell your services."

Unlike some other organizations, the dance company does not depend on an annual benefit. Among its fundraising events, its Nutcracker gala, which is scheduled to take place this year on Dec. 12 at the Palace Theatre, is considered its most high-profile. Yet money raised from the production has varied over the years.

"I can't point to a big net," Raphael said.

But deciding to forgo fundraising events is out of the question.

"You don't want to do without it because there will come a time when you do have a major sponsor who does come forward and you want everything to be in place."

Although the recession has officially ended, expectations for the coming year are still tempered even for an arts organization that has not only survived but managed to expand its audience.

"We have actually weathered a couple of recessions in the last 29 years," Raphael said. "We've gone through the painful aspect of really buckling down and really working with the core funding and the core strengths that you have to market."

But he added soberly, "Nobody is out of the woods at this point."

Staff Writer Elizabeth Kim can be reached at elizabeth.kim@scni.com or 203-964-2265.