Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

The Minneapolis Foundation generously supports MinnPost's Community Sketchbook coverage. Learn why.

Helping the needy: philanthropy can only do so much

A post I wrote the other day got me thinking about nonprofits, and from there about charitable giving and how philanthropy fits into the current scene playing out in state and federal government these days involving gaping shortfalls and a slippery economy.

Certainly in the last couple of years, some grant makers — those foundations and corporate-giving programs that dole out dollars to nonprofits — have been able to step up in additional ways to ease the human suffering caused by lost jobs and homes.

Take, for example, the Community Economic Relief Fund organized by the Minnesota Community Foundation and The Saint Paul Foundation along with key partners. Also, there's the Bremer Emergency Fund, stemming from The Otto Bremer Foundation.

And now, of course, there's a lot of serious talk — at both state and federal levels — of cutting back government programs to help the needy because of budget problems.

All of which prompts this question: Can charity plug the holes left by government and fill the needs inflicted on people by the tsunami-like recession?

In a word: no.

"That's not the role of philanthropy in our society,'' emphatically says Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. "That's why we pay taxes. Philanthropy is not a gap-filling function for government.''

'We're like nickels'
Education grant making, for example, is equal to only 3 percent of what state government pays toward education, he says.

"We're like nickels compared to what the government puts into the community,'' Jerry Timian, program officer with the Minnesota Community Foundation and the Saint Paul Foundation, told me in another conversation.

In 2008 (latest numbers available [PDF]), foundation and corporate giving equaled $1.4 billion in Minnesota. Add in individual charitable giving and the number balloons to $5.4 billion.

Minnesota grantmaking by subject area, 2008

Foundations and their peers do consider the economy and public policy, which is why the Minnesota Council on Foundations' recent, more positive 2011 Outlook Report is interesting.

At the end of 2009, 21 percent of the foundation and corporate-giving members of the council participating said they might make some changes in the short-term giving in response to the economy. The end of 2010, only 11 percent anticipated making changes related to the state of the economy.

Bremer Foundation trustee Charlotte Johnson says her foundation is spending down its 2011 emergency grant fund — money that went to nonprofits already working with people and their basic needs including heating, housing, food and transportation.

Yet, folks at The Saint Paul Foundation, where there's also another pot of emergency money available every year (The Community Sharing Fund), aren't resting easy.

"It's very clear that while on paper government economists can say the recession is over," says Claire Chang, the foundation's associate vice president of grants and programs, "the reality in our work is" the recession is still being felt at the grassroots, in neighborhoods.

Women losing jobs
They're still seeing, for instance, the need for emergency assistance grants in Washington, Ramsey and Dakota counties to help people avoid foreclosure on their home mortgages and the need for assistance to rapidly re-house people forced out of their homes.

"We're seeing more women losing jobs than before,'' adds Timian, as they start to see layoffs impacting workers in city, county and state government and education.

Just look on the East Side of St. Paul, he suggested, and see a large number of empty and abandoned homes.

Their Community Sharing Fund puts out about $700,000 a year in small, timely grants to nonprofit groups helping low income people with medical, housing, and emergency needs, such as losing a job and thus health benefits. That private money is added to the money put in by government.

Say both parents in a family with young children lose their jobs. Working through social workers at nonprofits they fund, the foundation money could, for instance, pay for that family's $700 monthly rent to keep the family in housing and help keep kids in school.

When public dollars decline, it "really starts to erode the safety net structure and basic infrastructure for everybody,'' Chang says.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

Comments (11)

I guess it all depends on what sort of society one wants. Or if one wants a society.

The raising of the possibility and increasing of the importance of accumulating personal wealth has distorted greatly the sense of responsibility of one person to another.

From the early days of the hunter/gatherer society until quite recently, historically, the unable were taken care of by the able within an extended family or tribal situation. There always was some sort of social pact that ultimately fostered the development of a capable youth who would support those who had diminished capacity.

This is not to say that there were not dreadful situations in those times, but there was a general social pact. It was the only way that society could grow and develop. Is there any species out there that does not have some sort of familial or tribal bond necessary for their survival?

In those days, when there was a sufficiency, there was a sharing. That was the philanthropy of those days.

Well here we are, much later.

A very complicated society, with the importance of making and keeping money at a fever pitch. The function of medical care has become specialized and expensive and is outsourced to hospitals and doctors. Taking care of the elderly has become specialized and expensive, farmed out to nursing homes and different care providers. Education is specialized and expensive and is taken over by teachers and schools and universities. And so on.

At the time these institutions were formed, there was a rationalist understanding that how you received those social goods should not depend on how or where you lived. There was the understanding that there was efficiency and good that could be derived from the uniformity of national and state programs. In effect, it was an enlargement of the tribal care system.

The growth of these giant health, education and welfare systems made them much bigger than possible replacement by private philanthropy, whose net worth is far less than that of the society today.

But here we are also, in a time when there are those who think that the social pact needs to be dissolved, because after all, they do not receive benefit from those societal activities. Paying for health, education and welfare of others only encourages the use of health, education and welfare by those "who don't deserve it". And that is the crux of the issue today.

Set aside the fact that they benefit by not having to personally support the ill or the elderly in their family, that they do not have to support their unemployed sons or daughters, that they don't have to keep the crazy uncle in their attic, that they drive on the roads and receive police protection for their wealth, theirs is the idea that they don't need anyone else and they will always stand tall on their own.

Do you think that a person who objects to paying an effective tax rate of "X" percent will support private philanthropy in an amount even close to "X" percent?

Is there a philanthropy out there that is prepared to pay for all of the costs related to the care of a couple dozen cancer patients? Is there a philanthropy out there that is prepared to put out the support represented by the 9% of Minnesotans that receive food stamps? (By the way, for those of you who regard Texas as the capitalist dream, 20% of their citizens are on food stamps).

It essentially comes down to delusion and lies with respect to this issue. People are so advanced and superior that they no longer need society. Those who are behind, stay behind, survival of the fittest. That outlook is only based on the pretense that they and their millions of ancestors did not come at one time from a womb in a defenseless and needy state, depended on others at various times, ultimately ending up in a needy and defenseless state again.

Philanthropy is necessary, but not sufficient in this modern day.

"Haiti donations on track to break records"

"Celebrities, companies, sports teams and regular Americans are mobilizing to help in the wake of the Haiti earthquake with an outpouring of generosity that could exceed private donations made after Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami."

"After Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, private donations by Americans totaled $6.47 billion, says Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy. Almost $2 billion was given by private U.S. donors after the Asian tsunami."

Americans are the most generous people on the face of the earth. They just have to be convinced that the recipients are really in need.

Are these programs being cut in actuality, or is the desired rate of annual increase slowing? let's be fair here.

With respect to Haiti:

...The Relief Web site sums up the funding situation from January to December 2010 as: the requested amount of aid was $1.5bn and the funding received was $1bn, despite receiving pledges for $2.8bn.

The funding situation so far for Haiti in 2011 according to Relief Web is that $906m are requested to for aid projects and funding so far has been $44m...

Obviously there is a disconnect between perceived generosity and actual giving (just like spending on foreign aid).

But probably the real issue is sustained support. Haiti needs 2 to 3 billion a year for the next decade to build a civil society. There is no source for that.

Just as true, while you may give a dollar to a person begging on the street, and you feel good about that, there is a longer term need that persists after that initial gift. A home, education, health care, dental care, job training, employment search, etc., etc. That is where the real hard lifting is--in the subsequent years of sustained effort.

There are no philanthropies out there that have the resources for those sustained efforts, and volunteers are hard to find for that type of work. Oddly enough, that is why professional paid teachers and social workers came about--the volunteers gave up for the most part.

So people are generous, but not as generous as we comfort ourselves by thinking that we are.

Total welfare spending by state and local governments will be about $1 trillion dollars in 2011. Total charitable giving in the US, whether to dog pounds, clean water programs, churches, community orchestras, or welfare type programs will be just over $300 billion (and dropping due to a poor economy).

There is a difference of scale there. And from the declines in charitable giving, it is clear that giving is restricted by economic conditions.

Here's the real issue: not everyone on these programs really needs the help. I personally know someone who qualified for a type of government assistance. Perfectly legal, she qualified. But she did not need the money. She takes a couple vacations per year, has a house, goes out to eat, etc. just like anyone else. This is the problem with government programs. The truly needy are robbed by the merely greedy. As a conservative I don't mind a STATE (not the feds, thanks) deciding to help those who are poor beyond their capacity, through no fault of their own. But cutting programs doesn't mean that everyone is going to suffer. It is nonsense.

The illustration for this article could be considered racist! The hard working bridge builders all seem to be Caucasian.

On the other side it is all "people of color" with the possible exception of the upper right person with what appears to be long blond hair but the bit of face shown seems to have a darker tint! (hard to tell) None of these four is doing anything productive!

Minnpost picked this illustration!

//Are these programs being cut in actuality, or is the desired rate of annual increase slowing? let's be fair here.

Yes, let's be fair and accurate. Services have and will be cut. 35+ Minnesotan's have lost access to affordable health care, the cost of assistance for things like home health services, personal care attendants, etc. have gone up for struggling families. I live next door to a young woman with Spina Bifida and across the street from a family with an autistic child. Both families have seen funding cuts amounting to over $1,000 a year in state programs that used to help pay for services. Services have been cut, and no one has stepped in to help.

Beyond that is the mistaken notion that simply limiting increases is somehow not a real cut. For some reason such limitations are considered "real" cuts when applied to military spending but "false" cuts when applied to social services. The truth is it depends. In both cases (military and social services) failure to increase finances actually leads to cuts in services because of inflation. For instance, if you refuse to increase funding for something like Meals On Wheels and gas prices go up, the program won't be able to preserve existing services with current funding levels.

There's this Republican failure to realize that spending increases are actually calculated based on inflation and expenses. They not simply factored in as policy of "growing" government.

"Americans are the most generous people on the face of the earth. They just have to be convinced that the recipients are really in need."

MATTHEW 25:31-46 says you do not get to choose who is worthy. The only choice is between humanity and the fire.

Of course, for me, as an atheist, I feel that the only rational way to avoid bodies in the street is for everybody to help the helpless.

Telling the church or the charities to go handle it so we all don't have to think about it doesn't cut it- now what is the most efficient way to accomplish the most good?

"That was the philanthropy of

"That was the philanthropy of those days."

What do we call it now-when friends, neighbors and extended family help each other out? We all can think of examples. A brother of a client took in a high school senior who suddenly found himself abandoned, and provided him with a place to live for a year or so. A college friend drove her neighbor to each of his chemo treatments, which I believe were in Rochester. Families at an elementary school donate enough school supplies to allow every child in the school to start with the required materials. A friend lets a co-worker stay in his vacant condo while she is wrapping up her divorce.

We don't call these activities philanthropy.

Do we call them: nothing? Are we so geared toward monetary transactions that if there is no cash involved, the activities are valueless? Or, on a kinder note, perhaps the efforts are made without monetary concerns, and hence the reluctance to equate them to a monetary value.

But you can account for each of these examples. There is a figure for foster care for twelve months. The transportation to medical appointments has a market value, and so do the school supplies. The market rent on a condo can be checked out on Craig's List.

The point is, that in the normal course of many people's lives they interact with people in their families, their work and their neighborhoods by providing support services without monetary consideration. As Neal mentions, this behavior has existed since tribal times. And it is the most efficient way that we can take care of each other.

As a society we have entered into a pact-or social contract- to provide the most basic services for all citizens in a variety of areas. Hence the necessity for government to collect revenue and provide services. But wouldn't it make sense to better understand the natural state of philanthropy, for lack of any other word, and then strive to attain it?

From #5: "I personally know someone who qualified for a type of government assistance. Perfectly legal, she qualified. But she did not need the money."

And your point is...that because some people game the system the rest should be punished?

Because some people speed or drive drunk, we should abolish cars? Because some people abuse painkillers we should not prescribe them any more?

Get a clue.

After thousands of years human being invented governments for a reason. Governments are how Great Walls, Pyramids, Canals, and even really big churches get built (remember, Vatican city is a nation). We waited thousands of years for charities and the private sector to provide an economic cushion for out of work, disabled, and old people... and it never happened. That's why we created social security and unemployment. Those government programs made the difference between a Great Recession and a second Great Depression.

I have a buddy down in Haiti right now, the land that NGO's were going to save so much more quickly and efficiently than any government could. He just sent a photo of some graffiti: "One year later and I'm still living in a tent- f*** you NGOs"

Remember when we rebuilt Germany and Japan in five years with massive international government programs run by two generals? Now we can't even rebuild a half an island only 681 miles off our own shores.

As for waste, nothing is perfectly efficient, and there are always those who game the system. I've always thought it was funny that "small govment" folks always complain about the handful of dollars that are wasted in welfare programs for the poor. Let's just eliminate welfare they say. For some strange reason however the same prescription is never suggested when find that billions and billions of dollars are being scammed by defense contractors- no says we should shut down the Pentagon.