Posts Tagged ‘giving’

Giving Wisely

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Sometimes, despite what the etiquette experts say, the very best thing you can give is money – at least when it comes to giving to disaster relief and rebuilding efforts.

This morning I watched a news clip that showcased a neighborhood effort to collect clothing, food, formula and other items to send to Haitian earthquake victims. While I applaud their generosity, it highlights something that Stephanie Strom, in an article in yesterday’s New York Times, wrote:

Don’t send shoes, send money. Don’t send baby formula, send money. Don’t send old coats, send money.

The reasons? First, it is almost impossible for anyone thousands of miles away to know what the true needs of even a functioning community are. It is easy to get caught up in the spirit of doing good and go overboard – sending remnants of items from our closets and pantries to those who truly are less fortunate. Sadly, very often such generosity is completely unusable.  In 2005, just a few months after the devastating tsunami swallowed up whole villages along the Indian Ocean’s coastline, an Operation Kids Foundation representative went to Thailand to do an on-the-ground assessment of a rebuilding project for a client. He noted:

The first trip to Thailand revealed instance after instance of well intended but rushed and ineffective generosity. One illustration: we toured a small private airport and saw a mid-size airplane hangar full to the ceiling with boxes containing thousands of coats and scarves – donated by generous people in the northern hemisphere who were, at the end of December, in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, in the subtropical southern Thai climate, coats are never a necessity and this large inventory sat, unusable, while people lacked day-to-day necessities of food, clothing, water, medical care, housing and a way to support their families. This example is indicative of people so anxious to help, that they didn’t take into account the specific needs of the affected areas.

Second, “stuff” takes up precious cargo space – space that could otherwise be used for medical supplies, specific relief aid and relief workers.

More than what to send or not send, however, is the notion Rick talked about in Tuesday’s blog, “Rethinking Giving.” In an age where we as citizens are calling for more transparency, more accountability and greater impact among the global nonprofit community, we would do well to first evaluate our own giving. We all have limited time and money. As we seek to make the world a better place, let us evaluate where our charitable dollars are going – not just how a nonprofit uses them, but how we give them. If we seek to fund particular initiatives, activities or causes, let us give to to an organization that specializes in that area. If we want improvement, let us begin with ourselves as donors.

By giving wisely, we  help organizations improve their efficiency and their effectiveness. Nonprofits, especially in tough economic times, continually try to do more with less. The more we as donors are able to ease their burdens through responding to a community’s needs rather than our wants, the more organizations will be able to focus on the task at hand – improving people, communities and lives.

If your heart aches like mine does for those in Haiti this week – the greatest gift you can give is a recurring financial gift to an organization well-versed in what is going on on the ground. A little for now to aid in immediate relief, and some for later when the rebuilding begins.

-Sara Brueck Nichols

The Case for Philanthropy

Friday, January 8th, 2010

As a rule, I generally don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I’m a bit anti-winter, and it is drudgery to try and motivate myself to try anything new when it’s dark and snowy outside. Generally my burst of ambition (and consequently, goal-setting) comes in April or May when I start to unthaw.

I did set one resolution this year, however: I want to give more and give throughout the year, not just during the holidays. For the past two holiday seasons my husband and I have made a point to give a little more, and yet I feel still feel we’re not giving enough. While 2009 was a rough year for nearly everyone, we have employment, a place to live, heat, food, clothing and family. So many people do not have even those basics – and large economic recessions like that of the last two years only continue to add to that number.

Yet our giving as a whole tends to decrease during the times when those around it need it most.

The first of the 2009 giving news came out this week. To no one’s surprise, giving among America’s wealthiest citizens was down in 2009. Collectively, the wealthiest individuals and families gave $2.7 billion to charity last year, a decline of more than 65% from 2008’s levels.

2009 numbers for the public as a whole won’t be out until June, but the Urban Institute reports in their “High Impact Philanthropy” report: “According to Giving USA, charitable giving dropped by 5.7 percent between 2007 and 2008, after adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins Listening Post reports that three in four nonprofits maintained or increased the number of people served.”

It is doubtful that 2009’s numbers will even reach those of 2008 – and yet the need for giving has increased. A case can be made that there was less money to give, to be sure. At the same time, a case can be made that maybe some of us were too desperate to hang on to relative comforts to share what we did have.

It is easy to sit in our warm, comfortable homes with our plentiful food and forget about those who are wondering if they’ll survive the bitter cold weather this week in the Midwest or how many meals they might have to skip tomorrow – or when the next big financial blow will topple the house of cards. Then there are those who do not have any of that to begin with.

It’s easy to think, “I cannot be a philanthropist – I am not wealthy.” It’s not so easy to remember that if you have shelter, heat and food on the table you are better off than the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. In fact, if you had $2,200 in total assets to your name in 2000 you would have had more than 50% of the world’s population. If you had $61,000 in total assets, you would have been in the richest 10% of the world’s population, according to a 2006 World Institute of Development Economics study.

Philanthropy is about more than giving large sums of money. [Philanthropy is] altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement, usually manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons. (

Lest you think you cannot make a difference, consider this: In 2008, Individual Americans gave $229 billion to charity. Of that, only 3.5% (approximately $8 billion) came from the wealthiest individuals and families in America. The rest primarily came from the rest of us – the “regular guys.”

It’s not too hard to realize that most of us have it pretty good. With that, I invite you to join me in my resolution to be a philanthropist in 2010 – to recognize what we do have and generously share the excess.

-Sara Brueck Nichols