Minnesota nonprofits are getting creative to find new ways to drum up toy donations this holiday season for the growing number of families in need.

Annual toy drives are navigating a second holiday season of higher demand during the pandemic and facing a new challenge this year: a national toy shortage thanks to a clogged global supply chain, lack of workers and rising shipping costs.

"We are nimble, we adapt — that's the name of the game for nonprofits," said Michelle Ness , executive director of PRISM, a Golden Valley-based nonprofit that helps people in the northwestern suburbs. "This is a great way for individuals and families to give back."

In anticipation of toy supply issues, PRISM is putting out the word sooner in hopes of collecting enough toys for more than than 400 children in need — at least 100 more than last year in New Hope, Crystal, Robbinsdale, Golden Valley and Plymouth.

"We're excited to put smiles on faces of families," Ness said. "It will provide some hope, I believe, to families who are struggling. ... We're the keepers of hope."

The number of Minnesotans needing help hasn't subsided to pre-pandemic levels. The state's food shelves have seen a small dip in the number of clients since 2020's record high, but more people are relying on food stamps than in 2020.

The Twin Cities Salvation Army is seeing a jump in the number of people in need of a bed, hot meal, rent and utility assistance or other services. The organization is aiming to collect more than 21,000 toys by Dec. 10 to more than double the number of kids who receive gifts — from 3,000 families last year to more than 7,000 this year.

Just like last year, the Salvation Army will distribute toys in a drive-through instead of allowing in-person shopping due to the pandemic.

Across the nonprofit sector, organizations are frantically adjusting to the same broader supply chain issues affecting everyone — from volatile food costs and shortages of meat and fish at food shelves to the spiking lumber costs hurting affordable housing developers. Pre-pandemic, nearly half of Minnesota nonprofits surveyed had three months or less of cash on hand, so many charities don't have much of a cushion to weather ballooning costs.

Last year, toy drives also faced a shortage of volunteers as the pandemic deterred people from helping in person. Some nonprofits skipped collecting toys, shifting to gift cards for families instead — a trend that continues this year.

A small pile of toys has already started accumulating at Twin Cities Toys for Tots, which is run by U.S. Marines, and extra cash donations last year helped them get a head start on purchasing some toys, Sgt. Tyler Sanchez said. The Twin Cities chapter, which is the second-largest Toys for Tots campaign in the country, is aiming to surpass last year's 400,000 total toys, which will be taken to local nonprofits for distribution.

But with only about a dozen Marines staffing the warehouse, Sanchez said volunteers are critical to a successful mission.

"It's probably the best volunteer opportunity you could find around here sorting toys," Sanchez said. "I think the community is going to pull through and make this is really successful year … This is a great tradition."

The surge in COVID-19 cases in Minnesota also means many corporations are continuing to have employees work from home, which nixes office toy drives that were a mainstay for nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities. Instead, the organization is boosting promotion of online gift registries that donors can purchase from, just like PRISM and the Salvation Army are doing. Still, the number of toy donations is down.

"When it's not in front of you daily, where you have that collection box, that constant reminder isn't what it once was," said Tim Schober, spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs.

All three charities are especially in need of gifts for teens. About half of the 600 young people the Boys & Girls Clubs serve are teens. Unlike other nonprofits, the organization is also collecting items for adults so kids can shop for gifts for their parents or loved ones.

"There are a lot of people who may be struggling through this holiday season," Schober said. "These are types of programs that will really try to make this holiday season special for everyone in the Twin Cities."

Here are some local organizations hosting toy drives for kids in need:

  • Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities: Drop off donated gifts or have them shipped to Mt. Airy Boys & Girls Club at 690 Jackson St., St. Paul, MN 55130, by Dec. 15; drop off hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Go to boysandgirls.org/kids-can-give to buy toys on registries or donate cash to the program.
  • PRISM: Drop off donated toys by Dec. 6 at PRISM, 1220 Zane Av. N. in Golden Valley, or buy a toy on linktr.ee/prismmpls to be sent directly to the nonprofit. Cash donations are also accepted to fund PRISM toy purchases.
  • Salvation Army: Donate new, unwrapped toys by Dec. 10 at the headquarters, 2445 N. Prior Av. in Roseville, or at several local businesses listed at bit.ly/3FRiBXi. To volunteer to distribute toys at a drive-through or to sign up to register to receive toys (open for children ages 0-14), go to SalvationArmyNorth.org/toyshop.
  • Twin Cities Toys for Tots: Twin Cities Toys for Tots, run by the U.S. Marines, gathers toys to distribute to local nonprofits to help families. Go to minneapolis-mn.toysfortots.org for details on donating toys by Dec. 17. Go to bit.ly/3FPsjtd to volunteer to sort toys Dec. 1-22.
  • Twin Cities Toy Drive: Filmmaker Adrian Wilson is collecting 5,000 toys for Black, Indigenous and other children of color in this first annual toy drive. Artists designed toy drop boxes at businesses across the metro. Drop off toys by Dec. 19. Go to https://www.facebook.com/TwinCitiesToyDrive for full details and drop off locations. Toys can also be dropped off from at a holiday party 3-6 p.m. Dec. 19 at Graze Provisions + Libations in Minneapolis that includes an art sale and happy hour.