(Dow Jones) Charities are big business in the U.S., and now-the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve-is the usual peak for donors who have big hearts and grand pocketbooks.

Trouble is, times are tough out there in gift-giving country, as they are for just about any retail operation that hopes to wrest money away from consumers. So the volunteers and professionals who manage America's charities are searching for ways to recruit new contributors and to squeeze more cash out of the long-timers.

So far, it's hard to tell how strong a year 2009 will turn out for America's charities. In general, contributions were soft in 2009 but started to come back around the middle of the year.

Contributions varied by region, or even by ethnic group. In Utah, where the population of big-giving Mormons is robust, contributions of all kinds average close to 7% of family income. But in Michigan, Florida, Arizona, and similar states where unemployment is a disaster and the housing market is weak, contributions may be below 3%.

Even with all that, America's families are big givers compared with those in other countries, which have less of a tradition of self-help. And people in the U.S. who want to give increasingly generous gifts have to think of increasingly clever ways to make their money go farther.

Here are some of the ideas that are being tried throughout the country:

-Ask potential givers to donate via credit cards. This helps increase donations, as philanthropic professionals have discovered in recent years. "People will often give with a credit card when they might not want to give with cash or a bank check," says Melissa Brown associate director of the research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

-Ask each of the charity's board members to give a certain minimum annual contribution. A reasonable contribution is $5,000 a year.

-Ask board members and other substantial givers to choose between making one or two substantial gifts each year or, say, a dozen smaller, easier to swallow contributions each month.

-Ask board members to sponsor fundraising events at their homes. For example, host string quartet concerts, where local professional musicians perform for free. Members of the audience typically are asked for donations of $50 each.

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