Saturday, November 15, 2008

National Philanthropy Day

"Economists say the downturn may
develop into the worst recession since 1981-82.

-- New York Times November 13th,page one.

Today is National Philanthropy Day. A "celebration" marked the occasion here in New York which generates an estimated 25-30% of the country's annual giving "handle." How 2008 will turn out philanthropically won't be known for a few months. But many believe a sharp drop is possible if not likely.

We are hearing that the rich "feel" poor. The Sunday Times styles page that photographs the wealthy and the wannabes at charity events around town have for the most part stopped reporting the amounts of money raised at them.

Unlike many who work as consultants or development officers today I was around for that recession plus two or three before it, and of course for the bubble that burst in 1990. I have little recollection of the 1981-82 recession. So I went back and took a look. Adjusting for inflation in 1982 Giving USA reported about $127 billion contributed to US charities; there was good growth through 1987 ($150 billion). Then came the collapse and in 1992 - following two flat years at around $150 billion- there was a leap to $165 billion. And there has been strong growth since - up to $306 billion plus in 2007.

What I like about history is the arc of perspective it provides. Long term philanthropic trends - from 1967 forward have always been growth oriented with a few flat years now and then, and modest growth other years. But steady growth. It also seems to me that the swings are less for nonprofits than for the economy overall. That may be because charities over-all are more risk averse than the economy in general. Perhaps because of that and because they are mission and service driven most charities attract people who are less motivated by greed and self interest.

Whatever the environment and whatever 2008 brings by way of total giving in the US charities have no choice but to press on. Shoulder top the wheel, nose to the grindstone, the usual. The bad news is this is rough. The good news is that the story history tells is a hopeful one.

So happy philanthropy day! Hoist one for me.

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