Archive for June, 2014

Several years ago, a rabbi told me that he always carries coins and single dollar bills so that, if he sees a panhandler in the street, he can easily give a modest amount to him or her.  The idea is, while we do not know the circumstances of such an individual, the fact that s/he is asking should be proof enough that there is a need.  Shame on us if we ignore that need; shame on the beggar is s/he is scamming us.

How do you feel about this?  One-on-one philanthropy is tough because we just don’t know…

But do we ever?  I have done what I refer to as “symbolic” work at a soup kitchen, substituting for the regular staff on a couple of Christmas days.  I saw families and individuals in the facility, none of whom looked like the dirty and bedraggled homeless we see sleeping in doorways in New York City, but none of whom looked particularly prosperous either.  Some of the clients were strapping young men who were seemingly capable of at least manual labor.  I was told that most of them were down-on-their-luck working class poor, for whom the recent Great Recession was devastating.  Did the folks running the soup kitchen bar their entry because they might be scamming the facility?  Of course not.  The fact is, particularly on Christmas Day, no one goes to a soup kitchen if they can afford something better.  Although, the staff goes out of its way to treat all of its clients with dignity and respect.  Eating in a soup kitchen is, at its absolute best, a humbling experience.

Institutional philanthropy, particularly the short-term kind like a soup kitchen, is tough because we just don’t know…

On the weekend after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan region, my wife and I were at our home trying to clean up the mess.  Our neighborhood was badly hit, not to the point of mass destruction and obliteration of buildings, but enough that our houses were not habitable for weeks or months thereafter.  On that Saturday, a group of women from the local PTA made their way through the neighborhood handing out sandwiches and drinks to the residents.  I was overcome with emotion as I sat on my front doorstep eating the sandwich.  How awful – here we were, recipients of a modest yet most generous handout (“hand-up”) when we were always the ones giving to charity.  It was a blow to our pride and ego, but one we accepted with grace.  Those PTA ladies will never know how grateful we were for this small act of kindness, nor the profound effect it had on us.

Personal receipt of charity is tough, particularly when our personal pride goes to war with our sense of need…

I think it comes down to this – the seemingly short term “brother, can you spare a dime?” kind of charitable circumstances we find ourselves in from time to time should neither engage nor disengage the guilt factor we may feel at contributing or not contributing.  Our feelings will depend on our personal constitution, and we should come to grips with that as a matter of personal philosophy.  Sidewalk philanthropy may or may not do it.  We may feel more comfortable when, like the PTA ladies, we respond to a more verifiable crisis.  In the bigger picture, however, it is incumbent on all of us, particularly in this day and age of the fraying social safety net and tendency among politicians to demonize the poor, to take a longer term view.  We need to support those causes that truly help people in need and trust that, over time and situation, such organizations develop adequate controls to do the kind of triage required to stretch their limited resources to help those who need it most.

A great, big “thank you” to bloggers Richard Marker (“Wise Philanthropy”) and Gray Keller who, with differing viewpoints, have blogged about this issue and inspired this post.

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The Giving USA Foundation, whose stated mission is “advancing the research, education, and public understanding of philanthropy,” just published the 2014 version of its study Giving USA; The Annual Report on Philanthropy. Depending on your point of view, the glass is either half empty or half full.glass_half_full_empty_1600_clr_5473

Here are some interesting factoids gleaned from the report:

  • Total charitable giving during 2013 in the United States is estimated to be up by 4.4% year over year to $335.17 billion. That’s the good news. The bad news is, although giving is up 12.9% since the Great Recession ended in 2009, it will take another year or two at current, inflation-adjusted rates to reach the pre-recession high of $349.5 billion attained in 2007.
  • Year over year, individual giving increased 4.2%, foundation giving increased 5.7%, and gifts by bequest increased 8.7%. The soul sector showing a decrease was corporate giving, down 1.9%. Conclusions drawn: individuals are becoming more confident about giving to the causes they care about as their financial situations continue to improve. The mirror image applies to corporate giving – its decline was largely influenced by slow growth in corporate pre-tax profits.
  • Winning sectors in the charitable world include education, public-society benefit, arts, environment/animal, and health organizations, all up on average from 6% to 8.9%.
  • Losing sectors include religious organizations, due to declining affiliation and service attendance and international affairs, due to fewer disaster-relief contributions compared with prior years.   (Note that this classification excludes religious-oriented charitable organizations that are characterized within other subsectors.)
  • Finally, my favorite statistic and one of the more vexing ones: Giving USA notes that “over the last couple of decades, total charitable giving comprised about 2% of GDP. However, in the last decade, total charitable giving accounted for 3.5% of the overall growth in GDP.” Slice and dice the numbers anyway you want, 2% of GDP over the long term is pretty modest. Granted, according to the World Giving Index, the US was considered the most generous nation in 2013 (up from fifth place in 2012), but still……one would expect more, especially in a society that is supposedly so influenced by the major religious traditions, all of which emphasize the core value of charitable giving.

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