23 November 2005
by Cristine Cronin
New York, USA:
With the holiday season bearing down, many charities are on tenterhooks about end-of-year donations. Every year the nonprofit sector asks itself the same question: "Will giving be up or down this year?" After all, the yearend is when charities have an opportunity to balance the budget. Some people donate as a way to give thanks and help the needy; others are motivated by the tax deductions.
When you work in the charity sector, you are regularly reminded of the generosity of Americans, whether evidenced by the loyal perseverance of board members or the unstinting efforts of volunteers and staff. In New York City alone, there are more than 99,000 board members and 342,000 volunteers working at no pay to help NYC's nonprofits. Together they contribute an estimated 2.8 million hours of assistance per week, or the equivalent of 79,000 full-time employees, according to "New York City's Nonprofit Sector," a report from John Seley and JulianWolpert, co-directors of the New York City Nonprofits Project.
Year of disasters
It's estimated that Americans give nearly $250 billion a year to charitable causes. Some Americans are puzzled when you point out how giving we are as a nation. A Midwesterner said to me: "I don't know anyone who is so terribly charitable."
I reminded him that most of the families in his neighborhood volunteer at their children's schools or take part in their kids' charity activities, such as cleaning up neighborhood parks, selling Girl Scout cookies, or holding car washes and book drives. The man I spoke with coaches Little League and helps with his church's poverty program. What would he call all that? The irony is that charity is so entwined in the fabric of our daily life that we forget our actions are even charitable.
But there's something different about 2005, which makes holiday giving more of a front-burner issue. It has been a year of seemingly constant disasters and persistent strain on resources, starting with the cleanup in the wake of the Asian tsunami, which struck on Dec. 26, 2004. That was a calamity beyond our imagination, taking the lives of more than 224,000. More recently, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma affected Americans closer to home, with harrowing images of people in life-and-death struggles.
History shows that people give much more readily in times of crisis. Televised images are forceful and convey a sense of urgency, which often translates into rapid donations. The Internet has played a salient role, because it allows donors to make gifts easily and instantaneously, while still caught up in the moment.
One can't help but wonder how many donation dollars are lost to good intentions that get deferred. It is estimated that donations in response to the recent earthquake in Pakistan were only 15% of what was raised after the tsunami, in part because fewer images of the earthquake were broadcast.
And one also can't help but wonder how the tragedies of 2005 will affect holiday giving. Will Americans hold back because they feel tapped out? Will our charitable instincts be dampened at this crucial time of year? Considering that approximately 76% of the nearly $250 billion raised by charities each year comes from individuals, the importance of these questions can't be ignored.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported last month that donations in 2004 to the 400 largest U.S. charities grew by 11.6%, and that 2005 is already looking strong. It appears then that big charities will weather the 2005 storms.
What's unknown is the fate of the vast expanse beyond the 400 largest charities. There are more than 1 million charities in the U.S. Many play pivotal roles in their communities, feeding and caring for the underserved and those most in need.
These groups depend greatly on holiday generosity, and their donors are often middle-class people with moderate incomes. If they stepped up to the plate for the tsunami, Katrina, Rita, or Wilma, they may feel less inclined -- or even less able -- to give during this holiday season.
Experience tells us that the middle class has fairly consistent giving patterns. In 2004 approximately four out of every five adults -- 83% -- donated money to one or more nonprofit organizations. Independent Sector's "Giving and Volunteering in the United States 2001" indicates that nearly 9 out of 10 American families give charitable contributions, with an average contribution of 3.2% of their pretax income.
In truth, most of us could be giving more. The average 3.2% of income is not that much, put in context of consumption patterns: Americans spend $23.5 billion a year on candy and gum, according to Thomson PDR; $8 billion on cosmetic procedures, reports the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; and $40 billion a year on weight loss, per Fitness magazine. We can all probably afford to dig a little deeper into our pockets for charity, even this year. Especially this year.