Monday, January 11, 2010

Hap-py New Year!

I resolved not to blog at the end of the year because I knew what I wanted most for Xmas was to see the back of 2009. I greet the new decade with some hope and no little apprehension.

On the hope side, over my 50 years, US philanthropy has always amazed me for its resilience, survivability and intuitive ways of coping. I see no reason to believe this year will be otherwise - even if the numbers are off previous highs. The belief that charities do good is deeply embedded in the American psyche and Americans continue to respond generously. That US charity is so fractionated, duplicative, unregulated and often badly managed (case-by-case) is- in an obverse way - a strength. Why? The very breadth of the market and the fact that most are family-size operations - just like American business as a whole - insure that a large number survive. Should they? The market really does decide. Charities may not always prosper but they do flourish all over the country.

My apprehension is that the US economy continues to struggle; e.g., an estimated 2 million homes will be foreclosed on this year, the need for families to use food stamps to survive is at an all time high. Food stamp consumers are the poor (traditional), the near poor (less traditional but always a factor) and the new poor - a phenomenon hitherto unseen. The chances that renewed government money will hit human service charities' budgets is slim to none, and as the saying goes, "slim just left." Enter Goldman Sachs.


This morning's New York Times reports that Goldman Sachs, sitting on the biggest profit it has ever made in its 145 years, "... Considers Requirement For Giving." Yes it's a p.r. stunt. And yes taxpayers hugely funded their turnaround 18 months ago and yes it's taxpayers who are losing their homes, their jobs and their shot at the American dream. That more people in their desperation haven't gone postal is a wonderment.

The money Goldman's largesse might produce for charity is but a rounding error in the context of the $300 billion plus philanthropic handle. Further much of the bonus distribution will be in stock that cannot be readily liquidated. How much "real" money will hit the table is unknown.

The silver edge is that most giving most of the time is local and it is therefore a good bet that New York City charities will see much of what actually is donated in cash. Goldman's profit will be about $12 billion; not all of it will be distributed to the employees. But assume $6 billion was: if just 1% went out the door that's $60 million to be split among a select of the 20,000+/- non-religious charities in the city. Better to have it than not to have it of course. Sorry to be churlish but I'm just not carried away.


On a mildish, wet New Year's eve my usually lusty SoHo neighborhood was the quietest I have ever seen it in 30 years. The cameras were at Times Square where cheering yahoos from the outer boroughs and other landfill made for a TV spectacle. But reading the entrails my pickup is quite different. My sense is a city and an economy at the edge. It could fall either way and if I believe what I read we're better off than most.

I hope for the best. I dread the worst.

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