American generosity can defy this recession

Charitable giving is down, but small donors are making a big impact. Will you join them?

By

The recent news of a 6 percent decline in charitable giving is yet another troubling effect of the economic crisis.

The timing is terrible; as state and local governments are making tough budget cuts, the need for essential services that charities and nonprofits provide is on the rise.

A decrease in funding is already having devastating consequences for many communities. Whether you are one of the nearly 13 million people who work in the nonprofit sector in America, or are one of the millions who rely on the services they offer, the effect of the drop in charitable giving will surely be felt.

Ensuring a vibrant and thriving nonprofit community will be essential to weathering our economic storm and seeing us through a successful recovery. Unlike AIG or the auto giants, the not-for-profit community shouldn't expect a bailout. As first lady Michelle Obama recently said, government alone is not the answer. Help must come from each and every one of us.

The good news is that not every organization has faced the same hardships during this crisis; some are even thriving through tough times. So as we work to protect and promote the innovation and support that nonprofits provide, there are a few key lessons and steps we must take to have a successful recovery.

First, we must make it easier for donors to give and make a difference for less money. As Americans keep a closer watch on their pocket books, nonprofits must ensure that engaging small donors is a top priority.

Raising the premium on programs that do more for less will help the nonprofit sector earn and sustain the trust and enthusiasm necessary to attract donations. If the past presidential election taught us anything, it was that finding creative ways to engage small donors can be a powerful tool for fundraising and change.

This model has become a cornerstone for our own organization, GlobalGiving, as well as for a growing number of innovative, marketplace-based giving and microfinance organizations such as Kiva and DonorsChoose. All three organizations have seen donations grow throughout the economic crisis.

Second, nonprofits should leverage the power of technology and social-networking tools to build connections to the causes people care about and make donating easier, more transparent, and cheaper to promote. Charities have long tried to engage technology. Sometimes it has produced mixed results, but successful mission-focused organizations in today's market will be the ones that do not shy away from innovation.

There's lots of experimentation already under way on this front. Mashable's Summer of Social Good is the first large-scale online charitable campaign that will raise funds for local nonprofits strictly through the power of social media and the Internet.

Our federal government is getting in the game, too. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called on Americans to text in donations to aid the humanitarian relief effort in Pakistan, helping to raise more than $100,000.

In the end, charities and organizations are only as strong as the support they receive from donors.

Volunteer service always will be a critical source of support for low-resourced nonprofits. But for a successful nonprofit recovery, many of us must give financially as well as with our hands.

When Americans join to better our communities in the face of hardship, we succeed. In the wake of hurricane Katrina, we donated more than $4 billion to help the victims rebuild their communities and their lives.

We are always at our best, at our most generous, in the face of crisis; and our current economic climate is nothing short of disastrous for many nonprofits, and the communities that rely on them.

So as we search for the path to a sustained and lasting economic recovery, we cannot simply hope for help from the top down.

We must harness generosity, and engage our collective commitment to making America stronger through donations. It's the only way forward.

Dennis Whittle and Mari Kuraishi are cofounders of GlobalGiving.com – an online marketplace for philanthropy.

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