February 15, 2011

As Government holds back, nonprofits must open up

Philanthropy: Love for mankind

America's social safety net is in real jeopardy, and philanthropists and the non-profit sector have an obligation to respond. Government support is diminishing, just when many families and seniors remain without jobs or savings. For the next couple of years, until the economy and government functionality get back on track, the philanthropic community needs to focus on immediate needs, even at the cost of abandoning some visionary initiatives.

Between President Obama's domestic spending freeze and some significant cuts in his proposed federal budget, and Republican calls for still deeper reductions and ever bigger tax cuts for those with means, the budget for the 2012 fiscal year will fall short on many essential services. The individual states, which actually deliver most of the social services, are getting even less back from Washington, and few have the luxury of running at a deficit the way the U.S. Government has become accustomed.

Many individual donors often have favorite causes, from the environment to cultural exchange, to capital projects (i.e., more buildings). I propose scaling back all these agendas, and retasking organizations as much as possible to ensure that children, elderly and the underprivileged are able to weather the coming storm. 

Call it a moratorium on non-essential services and campaigns.

After tolerating eight years of budget inflation and ballooning debt, Congress has chosen this moment of greatest need to shrink the role of federal government. States are now left to pick up the slack. Families will literally be out on the street, elderly will go hungry and unattended, our unemployed will not get job counseling, pregnant mothers will miss the opportunity to deliver healthy babies for a self-sufficient American future.

Nonprofits like zoos and museums may be constrained by their charters from supporting soup kitchens, but there are creative ways to help out -- after-school activities where programs have been eliminated; increased summer programming for low-income families; art therapy for senior citizens. Donors to the glamorous, big-ticket causes can be encouraged to add or set aside part of their gift to a pre-designated service agency. The time for excuses has passed, and we need all hands on deck.

Not every charity needs to focus on delivering social services, but during this once-in-two-generations emergency, we all need to do more. Those charities holding on to reserves for a "rainy day" need to accept that such a day has arrived. If not now, then when?

Two years ago, Noam Neusner proposed that all foundations should commit to spending down their entire principle within 50 years, along the lines of the biblical Jubilee. At the very least, every endowment and foundation should be giving away all interest earned during the past year as stocks have rebounded. Barring specific restrictions, there is little justification for holding on to cash while people starve and freeze.

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