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

Friday, June 20, 2008

Selling Everything

It's a sweltering 100+ degrees in Los Angeles today so I spent the whole day indoors, slogging through papers and other accumulations of annoying stuff. I'm always stunned at the amount of things I find that are disposable, even though we try our best to cycle things out more quickly than they come in.

Some of the disposable stuff is still leftover from the distant past. It's hung around for the usual reasons that most of us keep things longer than we should: the inability to make a decision about what to do with them. Today I flipped open the Rolodex and spotted a card with the address and phone number of someone who's dead. You'd think that would be easy enough to toss, but what if the person was famous? Shouldn't I keep the phone number as a memento to show that I knew him? I'm not sure who I'd be showing it to and I can't imagine that this proof would be necessary or significant to anyone. It is just an address and phone number.

I told you it was over 100 degrees here today, so I can only suggest that the heat affected my brain. Yes, I must shyly confess that I let the card stay there. I have fond memories of the guy and a funny story or two to go with them. Ah, but this just shows how devious our minds can be when we're in purge mode.

Of course, all the tiny decisions that hold us back could be avoided if we unloaded all our possessions in one fell swoop. In our household, when we're feeling overwhelmed by stuff we often say that we're going to "sell everything," but what, exactly does that mean? It doesn't seem a very practical idea if taken literally and there certainly are some sentimental items that would give me pause if I were forced to part with them.

In a previous post called Designing Your Life, I asked you to ponder what you'd try to save if all your possessions were about to be lost in a fire or other natural disaster, a far less than desirable way to have decisions made for you about what you get to keep. In that post, I also mentioned last year's "sell everything" auction by Lisa Perry and John Freyer's "sell almost everything" art project auctions in 2002. Lisa used her money to move to another state; John used the proceeds from his many auctions to go visit his things in their new homes and create a book about the experience called All My Life For Sale.

And now, coming up this Sunday, is the closing of the "A Life 4 Sale" eBay auction by Australian Ian Usher. This 44-year-old man is selling his house, jet ski, car, clothes, a try-out for his job offered by his employer at a rug store, and even his friends who say they'll welcome the newcomer. The break-up of his relationship and, apparently, the resulting genuine desire for a radical change of life led to his decision to let everything go at once. "As long as the auction is a success I will leave Perth with my passport and wallet and I'm off," said Usher.

Could you do it? Sell everything? Is it a scary proposition or an enticing one?

I'm still rather fond of my youthful idea of being able to fit all I own in the back of my car and hit the open road. Very Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson (minus the substance abuse). Of course, gas prices would have to come down quite a lot. But I do drive a hatchback with plenty of room . . . and it is a Honda so it gets great mileage . . .

Nah. Must be the heat.

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob