Saturday, June 28, 2008

Embracing Charity in Tough Economic Times

It's no surprise that charities and other non-profit organizations suffer during economic downturns. Public and private funding is cut back and individuals are reluctant to donate as much as they have in the past because they can't afford it or they feel insecure about their own futures.

The current malaise that affects our society has had exactly those effects. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper serving the non-profit world, has a summary in their "Bracing for Tough Times" article from last February by Holly Hall and Sam Kean.

You can find evidence in reports from across the country, too. The Dayton Daily News in Dayton, Ohio, has an ongoing series about "coping with an uncertain economy" and the effect it's having on charities. Florida Catholic has a story from Pensacola. Nashville's NBC affiliate television station, WSMV, has a website report on the "money crunch" faced by charities.

And it's not only the recipients of the benefits of charities and non-profits who feel the pinch; it's the entire community. The State News, the student publication from Michigan State University, reports on the impact to that state's economy: "The Michigan nonprofit sector is the fifth largest industry in the state in terms of employment as it provides about 380,000 jobs. According to the MNA, Michigan nonprofits generate nearly $69 billion in total economic activity annually and have assets of more than $80 billion."

Charities have to make up for their lost revenue somewhere, so not only are services reduced, but jobs are eliminated or hours are cut. Building improvements are put on the back burner. Just staying afloat becomes the primary goal.

There's one specific issue that came up just today when I spoke to a friend who's retiring and closing her business: the price of gasoline. She's been working very hard to sell or otherwise dispose of equipment and furniture. She discovered that Salvation Army has had to cut back the number of trucks they use to pick up donations because gas prices make the expense of operating them too high. She also discovered that movers are adding as much as a fifteen percent surcharge for fuel to their bills.

Commuters have certainly suffered from the high price of gas, especially in places like Los Angeles where people often drive ridiculous distances to get to work. But gas prices have also forced some charitable organizations to completely rethink how they serve their constituencies. In a recent NPR Marketplace piece, Sarah Gardner reported:

“Volunteers for Meals on Wheels drive their own cars to deliver over a million meals a day to home-bound seniors. These days, the meals and the wheels are more expensive. A recent survey showed at least 58 percent of the charity's local programs have lost volunteers due to high gas prices. . . many of those were seniors on fixed incomes themselves.”

Enid Borden, President of Meals on Wheels Association of America observed that "volunteer shortages have meant also cutting some delivery routes. She blamed two senior deaths on those cuts.”

If people dying as a direct result of gas prices doesn't get you out of your monster SUV, what will? -- But, if you were driving a gas-guzzling SUV, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog anyway.

So how do we turn all this bleak information into something positive? How do we most effectively deal with this crisis?

There's a popular saying that the two Chinese characters that make up the word "crisis" are "danger" and "opportunity." Alas, that's a myth that's been debunked, but I still believe that the basic idea is sound. We're certainly in dangerous times in terms of being able to meet the needs of so many of our citizens, and for some of us, our own needs. Obviously, cutting expenses and being especially thoughtful about our purchases are sensible responses, but there can be danger there, too, if these decisions are based not only in practicality but in fear. Decisions made in fear can be confining, stifling, and can hold us back from fulfilling our potential. The way out of a crisis is not to hold back in fear, but to move forward wisely.

So let's look at the great personal opportunity we have and make another decision based in love and charity. If you are fortunate enough to have more than you need, this is definitely the time to let it go. If you have clutter, there's no better time than now to donate your extra stuff to those who are in need. There's no better time to clear out your home so that you can clear your mind to deal with whatever situation comes your way during this period of uncertainty.

Think about that phrase, "staying afloat" -- to move or rest lightly on the top of the water. It's a lovely image, floating down a stream while the water underneath and around you ripples and gurgles over rocks and hidden tree trunks; it's the opposite of sinking like a stone because of clinging to excess baggage, literally and figuratively.

If we want to float lightly through life and think clearly about how to create a brighter future for everyone, we need to have less stuff. There's no better time than now to embrace the concept of charity.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Jeri Dansky said...

Great post, Cynthia.

This is off-topic, but your comments on "decisions made in fear" reminded me of something I read just yesterday about Gene Robinson, the Episcopalian bishop. There's lots of discussion of fear (and the absence of fear) throughout the quite-wonderful story. Here's just one quote from the article, quoting Robinson:

“I have no idea what goes on in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mind — I can’t get him to return my calls or e-mails or letters — but doesn’t it strike you that he’s a fearful person? So often, the thing we fear is what we create when we’re fearful. There’s no question in my mind that he wants to save the communion, but by his being fearful, he may be bringing about the very thing he most doesn’t want to happen.”

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Glad you liked the post, Jeri.

Thanks for the link to the fascinating article about Gene Robinson. I've been sporadically following the schism in the Episcopal church and the unexpected alliances that have been formed as a result.

I'm always careful when I talk about the power of thought, as I did in this post. I'm not a person who believes that you "create your reality" by your thoughts, i.e., if you're financially successful, it's because you thought your way to success; if you're physically ill, it's because your thinking was "wrong" somehow. In fact, that sort of belief system drives me crazy.

I think reality does a pretty fine job on its own of defining our circumstances, but we do have control over our responses to them. And, as Robinson says, sometimes we can affect certain situations in our lives through our expectations. If you are fearful, reality will provide you with plenty to fear, perhaps including your greatest fear -- especially if you are making your decisions based in fear, which means you're letting an inhibiting emotion be in charge. Never a good idea.

Ah, I could go on at great length about this!

Fortunately, at least for me, I've found that reality offers plenty of opportunities to reinforce making decisions based in hope and generosity, even if it's no more than knowing the sun will come up tomorrow. (And yet I hate that blasted song from "Annie!")