Crisis Calming for Charity

The great economic contraction that began officially in September of 2008, has created a crisis for the charitable sector in North America and globally.

Stories of massive losses for venerable grantmaking Foundations abound. Thousands of non profit salaries, millions of people in need, and extraordinary social change strategies depend on those sources of funds. Individual donors are starting to freeze, all waiting to see what happens next. Big commitments go on hold. Budgets go into territory more unpredictable than have ever been faced. Layoffs, contingency plans, voluntary salary cuts, painful reductions in service and agendas, suck the joy out of the already highly demanding work.

A sense of doom is seeping into the charitable world.

The impact of stock market wealth evaporation has a vastly bigger human face than we yet feel. Foreclosures, job loss, government cutbacks, pension fund shrinkage, credit availability contraction, all combine to make a shrinking formula.

What will happen to the charitable sector, to those saints who feed, soothe, teach, inspire, connect, advocate, look after, communicate, expose, create, and innovate?

We can guess. The answer is disconcerting.

I am the Chair of the Tides Foundation in San Francisco. I am a founding board member of Tides Canada Foundation in Vancouver and Toronto. These organizations are national public charities, like national community foundations with special emphasis on social change charity. Social change charity goes beyond addressing symptoms, aiming at systemic root causes of those symptoms. Such work is rarer. It requires highly skilled strategic professionals.

Tides provides an array of financial services for the charitable sector, both those who give away money and those who use donations to affect change through programmatic work in communities. We also experiment with real estate for conservation or asset building and stability in the non profit sector. Opportunistic response for creative uses of charitable funds towards a broad agenda of positive social change is our service. We help people give away money effectively. We help organizations apply charitable money towards societal problems.

From my roles in these organizations, I can tell you that there is great distress in the sector. People are reducing or even halting their donations as they understandably wait to see what will happen next.

All of us look at the dollars we have now lost that we thought we had in our net worth, only a short time ago. We may regret what we didn't do when we had the chance to. The charitable part of that revisit is a tragedy. When I think about if I could turn back the clock and give away the money I've lost, I feel sad. Because it's true and because it reveals my own complicity in holding on when I didn't really need to.

Will I be bold and maintain my commitment level during a time of great uncertainty? Will you? What will be the collective impact of our answers?

Please consider continuing your charitable donation commitments. Take a break from buying discretionary consumer goods instead. Do all you can to keep up or even increase your donations budget. Donations are a voluntary taxation on behalf of the greater good. Whatever scale or definition of that touches you, I ask that you stretch in the face of uncertainty.

Much depends on the charitable sector. It requires our ongoing investment. Write cheques. Write commitments in your Will. Write appeals on behalf of your favourite organizations.

Late in life, when we think back upon our life deeds, these actions may rank higher than many others.

For another perspective charitable giving in the current economy, read Francisco Martinez's article on the Economic Outlook.