Trying times continue for charities

  • January 22, 2010
Natural disasters that inflict heart-wrenching human suffering, such as we’ve seen in the Haitian earthquake, show us the best and the worst of the changes we’ve witnessed in recent years, particularly in the media.

Through the immediate spread of eyewitness accounts, often through the use of social networking tools such as Twitter and cellphone videos, we learn of the devastation almost as it happens. As a result, faster ways to send help to crisis areas and faster ways to donate money have developed very quickly.   

But unfortunately the dark side of human nature is never too far behind any innovation. News of the Haitian tragedy had barely broken before people began to receive fundraising pitches — by text and e-mail as well as by phone — from bogus charities. Cynical profiteers know the importance of appealing to people while images of need are top of mind, and people tend to donate more when the impression of need is strongest. In the present instance, whether funds will get to legitimate charities in sufficient quantity to make a real difference remains to be seen, but Canadians have a better record of donating to specific tragedies, at least proportionately, than they do to giving to the churches, charities and non-profits that do lower-profile work all year, every year.

The reality is that this tragedy could not have come at a worse time for the charities and non-profit agencies that will form a big part of the response. Most have seen the impact of the economic downturn of the past year reflected in reduced support. In particular, those who serve the poor and the unemployed have faced increased demand for their services even as resources diminished. It’s not surprising that a recent survey by the Ontario Trillium Foundation found that three quarters of recipient organizations reported they were feeling the effects of the downturn (compared with 30 per cent a year ago). Most saw a significant decrease in corporate and individual donor support and say that it had a negative impact on their programs and services. Agencies that rely primarily on smaller, individual donations probably felt the impact a little less than those that rely primarily on large donations from foundations and corporations, but it would be difficult to find any that aren’t in a worse position today than they were before the downturn.

The impact of the crunch is two-fold. For the short term, there is an obvious effect in terms of reduced funds available for ongoing programs, which some will be more creative than others in meeting. In general, few of us are spending very much on non-essential items. At a time when you can’t click on a newsletter or go to a seminar without being told to adopt new technologies, including some of the social media tools noted above, it’s more difficult to justify the expenditure in training, time or the tools themselves.

For the longer term, agencies that have had to focus on keeping the lights on while meeting current needs have, of necessity, neglected or even had to dip into the reserve funds often set aside for emergencies. Just as significantly, many have had to devote attention almost exclusively to their budgets rather than to the long-range planning that will help them — and their donor communities — emerge from the crisis in a stronger position. As one respondent to the Trillium survey put it, if non-profits are unable to think about the future, the impact of the recession is going to continue for years, and will impact the non-profit sector long after the economy itself has improved.

While it’s hard to find any bright spots in the charitable and non-profit landscape, there is no doubt that most agencies, just like most businesses, have been forced to re-think what they do and how they do it.

Whether it’s travelling to a conference that may not teach you anything you didn’t already know, or considering a proposed venture into a new service that might (but might not) prove valuable to your core service, most have decided to save the money and focus on what they can do best.

Finally, because the media is getting information to everyone faster, agencies are evaluating how well they communicate their messages to their own communities as well as to the public at large. “What do you do, exactly?” may be a fun question to answer when times are good. But if charities and non-profit groups are doing their work well, it isn’t a question the community should even be asking.

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