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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Uniting communities with charity donations

Rosabeth Moss Kanter Knight Ridder Newspapers

I s charity just a chance for a tax deduction? Philanthropic donations appear high on lists of year-end tax-saving tips, especially now that Katrina relief provisions dangle a one-time deduction of up to 100 percent of income as an incentive for giving.

Total annual giving in the United States is a relatively constant $250 billion. Roughly 75 percent of this comes from individuals, not corporations or foundations, as reported on www.charitynavigator.org. And half of all annual giving by individuals occurs now, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Individual philanthropy has become a mass market fueled by direct marketing campaigns and payment options (installment plans, credit cards) resembling arm’s-length commercial transactions. This creates opportunities for occasional abuses.

My current candidate for least-necessary trust violation is the phony newspaper profile of a nonexistent 10-year-old boy created by Texas state social workers to solicit donations for a charity serving foster children in a town outside Houston. The boy’s story of separation from his mother while he lived in a post-hurricane emergency shelter was heart-tugging – but total fiction, as a newspaper reporter discovered when he couldn’t locate the boy for an interview.

Fortunately, cynicism about a few scandals doesn’t spread to all charities, according to a Public Agenda Foundation report. But there is a rising chorus of complaints from donors about the commercialization of philanthropy. Disgruntled donors resent slick or aggressive fund-raising techniques, intrusive telemarketing, and duplicate appeals.

Between tax planning and direct marketing, what remains of the original meaning of philanthropy as love of the human community?

Philanthropy should unite us as a community of the generous – a grand fraternity or sorority whose special handshake is a helping hand. But giving is too often done in isolation. When all we do is insert checks into envelopes or click through a Web site, we don’t get to meet our fellow members – donors, organizers, and recipients alike.

Small donors deserve naming rights like big contributors, instead of seeing their money disappear into undifferentiated pools, their names in small print on throwaway booklets. Nonprofits should do for the living what Washington’s Vietnam Memorial does for the dead: Etch every name in a visible place.

In the Cape Cod town of Sandwich, Mass., community members sponsored boards on a new boardwalk over wetlands and marshes, proclaiming their love for specific people while becoming known to one another. The Miami Children’s Museum is inviting donors to put messages on artist-designed ceramic tiles for permanent installation.

“Everyone has idealism in them,” says Michael Brown, co-founder of City Year, the urban Peace Corps, “but they need a community to bring it out.”

“Giving circles” are one example. They connect individual donors and increase their impact while cementing friendships.

Residents of Fisher Island, near Miami Beach, created a philanthropic fund with Miami-Dade United Way, visiting nonprofits together while discussing their values and choices, and then committing both funding and service time.

A family I know turns their Christmas tree into a “giving tree” each year for a cause they champion personally to their friends. At their holiday party, ornaments are joined by envelopes; gifts for homeless shelters circle the tree.

Weaving community service into work life builds teams that share values. Timberland offers employees 40 hours a year of paid time for community service and includes service opportunities in sales meetings and supplier conferences. Cemex, the Mexican global cement company, deployed 300 international managers to repair a rural school near Cancun. IBM offers employees a suite of Web-based tools to use to help their favorite nonprofits.

Local community service makes charity a meaningful part of everyday life. In monetary terms alone, local organizations have greater-than-ever needs. About $4 billion has gone to relief efforts following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which makes it likely that other local causes will suffer in 2005 donations. Perhaps encouraging neighborhood businesses to adopt a cause can mobilize new sources of funds and make new friends.

It’s been said that philanthropists are people with more money than time. But it’s worth taking the time to talk about what our communities need.

Generosity can unite us. That’s an addition, not a deduction.

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