Heading into the holidays amid deepening recession, Angela Smith has one concern that eclipses her own worrisome situation — the thought that Santa might not make it to some homes.
“Yes, we are in an ugly economic crisis and I’m scared like everyone else, but I’d rather go without than see little children suffer,” said Smith of Cocoa, Fla. She said she took the little cash she had in reserve and spent it on goody boxes for children who otherwise might have nothing on Christmas morning.
Smith was among the hundreds of readers who responded to an msnbc.com query asking how the turbulent economy is affecting their charitable activities. She also was among the vast majority of respondents who said they plan to keep up or even increase contributions to favorite charities or those in need, even if they are feeling the financial pinch themselves.
Many also indicated they are focusing their philanthropy locally and, in some cases, dispensing it personally.
Such individual initiatives are increasingly needed, as institutional charities struggle to maintain contribution levels.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported Monday that 37 of the 66 charities it surveyed as part of its year-end roundup reported that donations are down in 2008. The major exception appears to be social-service charities, many of which have seen contributions increase over last year, it said. But that has been largely offset by increased demand for their services and the decline in value of investments used to fund activities.
A case in point cited by the publication was the Salvation Army chapter in Syracuse, N.Y., which has seen contributions increase by 20 percent over last year. But at the same time, demand for food from its pantry has doubled and the nonprofit is housing 50 percent more people than its shelters were designed to accommodate.
The charity, which relies on government grants and contracts for 70 percent of its operating budget, also recently learned that New York will cut support for many of its programs in April as it attempts to trim an estimated $15 billion state budget deficit, it reported.
Creative, personal giving
As charities and government social service agencies around the country wrestle with similar hard realities, some comfort can be found in the e-mail sent to msnbc.com, which indicates that the economic hardship has prompted thoughtful, personal and creative ideas for giving, even by some who might soon find themselves on the other side of the equation.
“I am certainly not wealthy and am on the brink of losing everything as I write, but that does not deter me from the joy of giving,” Jack McLoughlin wrote from his sandwich shack in Thomaston, Maine. He said he doesn’t limit his philanthropy to the Christmas season, as he donates year-round to the Salvation Army and food banks. When local fishermen were hit by falling lobster prices, he created a lobster special to help bolster their business. And with Christmas approaching, he has turned his business into a Toys for Tots collection point and gives a discount on lunch to anyone who donates.
Nancy St. Pierre of Cleveland wrote that the greater challenge posed by the difficult economy actually has added to the satisfaction she derives from giving.
“I have actually come to enjoy the challenge because I am a senior citizen who is supposed to be fragile and slightly dotty, teetering on the edge of senility,” she wrote. “Instead, I'm enjoying the renewed sense of being smart enough to work out solutions to problems posited by this economic turmoil. I contributed quarterly to six trusted charities before the recession, and I am willing and eager to continue sharing with those facing hardship.”
The responses also suggest a broader trend in giving patterns, toward addressing local and basic needs — giving to hometown food banks, homeless shelters, Meals on Wheels, animal shelters and granting the wishes of poor children through giving trees or similar programs. Some readers reported shifting their contributions to these immediate and urgent needs and away from nonprofits that serve more remote populations or causes.
Discovering need next door
Linda Flanagan of Henderson, Nev., was one of many people who said they were cutting down on family gift giving in order to free up money for helping people in need.
“I just spent about $140.00 buying warm clothes to send to a homeless shelter my sister works for,” she wrote “I'm doing this instead of buying gifts for my family, all of whom are very secure financially and in need of nothing except a bit of merriment, which I'm sure they'll manage to create.”
Other readers reported “adopting” a needy family or child through local agencies and providing food, clothing and gifts to match their requests.
But many said they didn’t really need any help identifying the needy — they found them in their own family, workplace or neighborhood and responded directly.
Nina Flores of Fort Worth, Texas, said she reached out to help after her daughters told her about classmates who had nothing but oatmeal to eat at lunch every day. She started by doubling her daughters’ lunches, so they could share with the other girls. Now she is giving groceries directly to the girls’ families.
“This year will be the first we are going to help two families at my two daughters’ school that have it really hard,” wrote Flores, saying that in the past she and her husband had given instead to the American Red Cross and a Catholic charity. Now, despite feeling the pressure of the struggling economy herself, she’s donating to the charities and helping locally.
Anne Hamm of Greenville, Pa., wrote that her mother thought of a creative way to help others by transforming a brewing family feud into a fundraiser.
“My mother has made a very beautiful quilt that everyone in the family would like to have," she said. “Rather than choosing who gets the quilt, she is selling raffle tickets to the family members and then donating the money to our local food pantry in town. With as many people as there are in the family and how badly we all want the quilt, I think it will be a nice donation!”
Turkey and stuffing, via the Web
Marcie Davis of Puyallup, Wash., said her family was moved by an article about shortages at local food banks. But rather then working through an existing operation, they decided to give Thanksgiving dinners to people in need, whom they found through the Web site Freecycle.org.
“I got quite a few responses and was able to bless three families,” wrote Davis. “Then for the ones I couldn't do, others contacted me about helping and two more families got dinners!” Her impression was that the recipients were until recently members of the middle class unaccustomed to seeking help.
“The families were so grateful,” Davis wrote. “It meant a lot to us to reach out to those who have needs, but are afraid to go to a food bank or might not meet the requirements.”
We also heard from readers who themselves felt so squeezed by the current economy that they are in no position, or mood, for charitable contributions.
“Giving?????” wrote Darrell Holst of North Platte, Neb. “Thanks to the financial train wreck of the economic crisis there is little left to live on much less to give!! I'm now on the receiving end and waiting for my "rescue plan" from the government! I think I'm next in line right after AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, etc. etc. etc.”
Giving time, blood
Others, like Mike Cheddar of Madison, Wis., said they were using a different currency for their charitable endeavors.
“I've stopped giving money,” he said. “I volunteer time instead. Like most Americans, I'm bitter and McJobbed, so I've barely enough money to give my family nice things for Christmas. Now blood donation and volunteering to teach English is it.”
There’s no question that the year has dished out many reasons for gloom — shrinking retirement funds, foreclosed homes and Wall Street fraud to name just a few. But the tough circumstances only add to the joy of giving for some generous souls.
Iris Tobias donates through her job in the defense sector, but she gets her fun from her own “ambush” charity.
“I set aside a certain amount of money that I feel I can share and then I head out to mingle,” said Tobias of Erie, Colo. Then, she goes out to stores, looking for people who are scrimping — perhaps with only bare essentials in their grocery cart, a stack of coupons in hand and maybe a calculator. (Tobias knows that look well; in the early years of her marriage, she and her husband scraped by on his military salary.) “If I get the overall impression they could use a hand I follow close, and as their back is turned I drop money in their carts,” she said.
Another theme in the responses was expressed well by Margaret Driscoll of Poplar Branch, N.C., who sees in the tough times an opportunity to break the habit of buying gifts for people who don’t really need anything.
“This year my family is not exchanging adult gifts,” she wrote. “We are giving gifts to the children. We have also adopted a child in need and will purchase gifts for him. We will spend Christmas enjoying a great meal and each other's company. The current economic times motivated my adult children to make these suggestions. I was pleased. I have wanted to get away from the material aspect of the season for many, many years. The current economic crisis is giving us (and I hope everyone) the opportunity to redefine what the season should mean: Peace on Earth, Good Will to All.”