Share the Wealth

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(HOST) As you’re making your list and checking it twice, commentator Olin Robison says not to forget your favorite charity.

(ROBISON) Along about this time every year for the last decade I have done a commentary here on Vermont Public Radio about the giving season. It is meant, each year, to serve as a very modest counterbalance to the aggressive retail commercialism of the season of which none of us needs any reminders.

It is now commonplace knowledge that the last six weeks of the year account for one third to one half of the retail sales and profits for most businesses in America. Many businesses quite literally rise or fall based on how well they do between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What is less well understood, and certainly less well reported in the news media, is that this period of the year is also the make-it-or-break-it time for most of the nation’s charitable organizations. Just as in the retail sector, a great many charities depend on end-of-the-year giving for 30 to 50% of their annual operating budgets. In short, your favorite charity is as dependent on you during the holiday season as is your favorite store.

The mythology has long been that foundations, corporations, and a few super-rich individuals are the heavy hitters in the giving business. The truth is otherwise. It is individuals who account for the overwhelming amount of giving in America. Sure, when this or that foundation or corporation makes a large gift, we hear about it and such news is always cheered, as it should be. But somewhere between 80 and 90% of all gift dollars each year come from individual givers, from ordinary folks sharing what they have.

The benefits and services we finance with our gifts to non-profit organizations for the most part are not easily measured. On the one hand, non-profits generally get good value for their dollars partly because their employees are frequently underpaid and they are usually able to mobilize a lot of volunteer labor. On the other hand, they tend to deal in services to the community which by their very nature are inefficient and inconclusive and not easily measured or quantified. But then, a lot of what makes life worth living is inefficient and inconclusive.

This great array of diverse non-profit groups, large and small, efficient and inefficient, is absolutely critical to making America what it is. It is the sector of our complex society which provides a vast number of services not otherwise available. And all of these groups survive at the pleasure of individual donors.

Over the last few years several national magazines have taken to rating charitable organizations, purporting to list the best charities. Pay no attention to that nonsense. The best charities are those addressing matters which each of us believes to be especially important. They live or die on the basis of what each of us gives. It is also a general rule of thumb that the smaller the organization, the more urgently dependent on the season it is.

So go on, share the wealth. Do it right this year. Give generously and give often. It really does matter. It matters a lot.

This is Olin Robison.

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