Giving large

John Osbon - November 9, 2011

Walk a mile in these shoes

Imagine that you run a business where operating revenue is less than half of what you spend. Imagine that the demand for your product is growing as your income is shrinking.  Envision that costs are rising, your employee base is overworked and underpaid, and your business model sometimes includes giving away your product or service for free.  Welcome to the non-profit world!

How can non-profits survive in this environment?

Despite a perpetually daunting operating environment, most non-profits do survive and many thrive.  How?  Skill, vision, persistence, and hard work are a big part of the answer. But the biggest explanation is simply this: generosity

We are generous by nature

Americans like to give money to support good work. And thank goodness, because with over one million 501(c)(3) non-profits – that’s what the IRS calls charitable organizations that support the arts, education, medical research, social services and other causes – there are a lot of worthy non-profit mouths to feed.

According to Giving USA’s report on 2010 charitable giving Americans gave roughly $300 billion away last year – approximately $1000 for every man, woman and child.  Although that was slightly below previous years’ records and somewhat more than in the recessionary 2008-09 period, giving in the United States remains remarkably constant at around 2 percent of GDP.  The dollar amounts change with the strength of the economy, but the rate varies little from 2 percent of GDP, going all the way back to 1956.

Giving freely seems to be part of our national DNA. The average American gives triple the amount of the average Frenchman, seven times that of the average German and fourteen times that of the average Italian.

Some recent shout outs

We all have our favorite causes. I’d like to mention three continuing successes in the Boston area, examples of non-profits that are doing well and would love your support to do even better!  I’ll focus on the arts, since that is my background and passion.

The Boston Ballet (I am on the board and a major fan!) deserves a standing ovation, both artistically and financially, since  Director Mikko Nissinen’s arrival 10 years ago.  The area’s second largest performing arts organization now funds a $25 million budget, and its outreach programs inspire more than 7000 children each year.

At last Saturday night’s annual gala, Executive Director Dan Monroe of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (I’m a former board member) announced a $650 million capital campaign of which $550 million had already been raised.  600 jobs are expected to be created as a result. For Salem’s 40,000 residents, that’s not a pebble in the pond, it’s a boulder.

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), seen as a magnet for the city’s Seaport development, is celebrating its 75th year with exhibitions, performances, and more fundraising.  The ICA’s 2006 waterfront building created a sensation both in its striking appearance and bold $65 million funding campaign.

Tis the season with a reason

Yes, times feel tough all over – for rich and poor. Portfolio values are down and so is personal income for many. The news cycle offers little encouragement. All of which means that non-profits need your support now more than ever.

As year-end approaches, now is a great time to review your giving for the past year and consider your options for 2012 and beyond. There are tax benefits to consider, but none nearly so valuable as the feeling of helping others achieve their goals and advance the public good.

 



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