December 8, 2008 in City

Hoping for generosity in an uncharitable economy

Gratitude, worry coexist at many agencies serving the needy
By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

At the Women’s Hearth, volunteer Stephanie Burgess plays Christmas carols for, from left, Sandy Wiedeman, Cindy Curran and Shalena Bromley. The number of homeless and low-income women who use the drop-in center has increased from 100 a day to 130 a day. Transitions, which oversees the center, recently met a fundraising goal, but leaders say per-person donations are below average.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Recession charity

Mark Hurtubise, president and CEO of Inland Northwest Community Foundation, an organization that assists donors with charitable giving in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, recently analyzed how various groups might respond to charitable giving requests, in light of the recession.

Corporations: Corporate gifts don’t help the bottom line much, so they are vulnerable to cuts. But corporations have an opportunity to provide community leadership by continuing donations in a sour economy. “They will be seen as the neighbor who came through in a time of need.”

60 and older: These loyal givers “will continue to donate to their charities of choice. They have the attachment.”

40 to 60 years old: This group’s retirement accounts have been hit hard. They are re-evaluating their life choices, including charitable giving. They’ll insist on more accountability and seek “visible and measurable” proof that their donations improve the lives of others.

Under 40: They grew up in boom times when the measure of success included the acquisition of goods, but now “their foundation is beginning to shake.” They may be the most open to messages that “giving is going to last longer than getting.” They already volunteer in great numbers and this inclination may “blossom into charitable giving.”

Historical giving

Dramatic drops in the stock market haven’t translated to dramatic drops in charitable giving. For instance, in the year after 9/11, when the Dow Jones industrial average decreased 17 percent, philanthropy actually increased by 1 percent.

In past recessions, overall giving dropped an average 2.7 percent, though social service groups saw donations increase slightly while religious and health-care nonprofits, as well as arts organizations, held steady.

Acts of war and terrorism tend to prompt more charitable giving. Between 1939 and 1942 – as the United States geared up and then entered World War II – giving increased almost 200 percent.

Sources: Advancing Philanthropy magazine; Philanthropy Journal.

David Hunt, a 53-year-old Coeur d’Alene School District counselor, summarizes his current financial situation this way: “My retirement has tanked. For the first time in 25 years, many of my co-workers are concerned about their job security, and it has me wondering, too. My expenses have grown while my income has not.” Yet Hunt, who routinely gives donations to about 10 nonprofit organizations, plans to continue his personal philanthropy.

There are a lot of David Hunts out there. National studies show that in past recessions, philanthropy decreased only slightly and donations actually increased to nonprofits that provide food, shelter and other basic services.

“It’s completely against logic,” says Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane. “But people in crisis get reminded of what’s important.”

An unscientific survey of nearly 100 Inland Northwest residents – which included a poll at and e-mail responses sent in by readers – reflected the national scientific studies. Most respondents said they planned to give the same donations as usual; several will give more.

“Money is really tight this year for everyone. It just doesn’t seem right to buy all this ‘stuff’ when there are so many people who don’t have money to pay rent, buy food, or turn the heater on,” said Kelly Sylvester, of Spokane. “We are very blessed, and I want my children to realize that. That’s why we are donating mittens, hats and socks to the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and toys and clothes to Olive Crest, a home for abused children.”

December is the month of “The Ask,” as it’s called in fundraising lingo. Many nonprofits make their annual pitches now because people are in giving moods due to the holidays. December is also the tax deadline for deductible donations.

Catholic Charities Spokane, for instance, hopes to collect $750,000 this month. The agency’s Christmas Collection provides the bulk of its annual budget. The agency, which sponsors 15 programs in 13 Eastern Washington counties, has been inundated with calls from people looking for volunteer opportunities. When people feel grateful, they give back, McCann pointed out, and people with secure jobs and adequate savings are feeling mighty grateful these days. But will donations show the same pattern as volunteerism?

“I’m prayerfully hopeful,” he said. “There’s not a lot we can do. We want to stay positive. There’s so much negativity out there.”

At Transitions, a Spokane nonprofit that sponsors several programs for women and families, gratitude coexists with worry. The nonprofit held its annual breakfast Oct. 29, followed the next day by its annual luncheon. The stock market was roller-coasting, and once-stalwart banking institutions needed bailouts. People were in financial shock. So Mary Collins Murphy, development director, was relieved that the breakfast and luncheon attracted 100 more people than last year. Transitions met its fundraising goal of $150,000.

But economic jitters were apparent, too. Average per-person donations were down to $233 from last year’s $292 average. And donors weren’t as willing to commit to multi-year pledges.

“All of the nonprofits are nervous now,” Murphy said. “We’re afraid the bottom may fall out.”

Meanwhile, regional nonprofits report increased demand for services. The Women’s Hearth, a downtown Spokane drop-in center for low-income women sponsored by Transitions, was averaging 100 visitors a day. Since the middle of October, the average fluctuates between 120 and 130 a day.

“We’ve had a number of new people, and some of it is new homelessness,” said Women’s Hearth director Mary Rathert.

Times of scarcity can foster clarity and creativity, said Mark Hurtubise, president and CEO of Inland Northwest Community Foundation. He expects to see more collaborative giving – friends and family members pooling their donations, for instance. And donors will be more inclined to spend charitable donations locally, because they know and trust the people asking.

Hunt, the Coeur d’Alene counselor, is also a cellist who performs with pianist Brian Crain. They plan to do even more fundraising concerts for North Idaho nonprofits in 2009, increasing both awareness and donations – and providing some musical joy in these off-key economic times.

Rebecca Nappi can be reached at or (509) 459-5496.

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