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Letter to the Editor: Chronicle of Philanthropy

Don't Let Standards Inhibit Risk Taking

The Chronicle of Philanthropy


Don't Let Standards Inhibit Risk Taking

To the Editor:

I applaud Steve Butz for his conscientious efforts to encourage social-service organizations to assess their own performance ("Making a Measurable Difference," November 13).

However, I fear that a standardized tool, if widely recognized by funders, could inhibit our sector from taking risks with the creative ideas that should be the hallmark of the nonprofit world. Further, a standardized tool could discourage charities from working with the neediest, most at-risk individuals in our community.

This reminds me of one of our greatest university medical centers, which has one of the lowest success rates in open-heart surgery because it takes the most difficult cases. On the flip side, there is the small community hospital with high rates of success with open-heart surgery because it takes only the simplest cases.

Charity Navigator and Guide­Star have made everyone more aware of the business side of charities. They should be viewed as one of many tools with which we can assess how best to invest in the social sector.

Mr. Butz's assessment software can be a valuable additional tool that may be relevant to many organizations. I am sure it is fair and has been constructed thoughtfully.

However, if a single tool is accepted as the "industry standard," I fear we will be stifling creativity at a time when we need it the most.

Perhaps the reason efforts to measure results have failed is precisely because our social sector doesn't lend itself to standardization. How do we measure the impact of a strong volunteer program in raising awareness of homelessness?

It is unlikely that a rating tool will measure how closely the mission of an organization matches one's own ideals, which is one of the more significant determinants of charitable giving.

When a donor asks me how to choose a charitable cause, I encourage her to learn, firsthand, as much as she can about the organization.

Ask about the services; visit the programs and determine whether the organization's mission matches your values.

But most important, you must get to know the executive director and professional staff. Then decide: Are these people with whom I am willing to invest my money?

With the American people calling for change, the economy in turmoil, and government funding faltering, I for one want to invest in people who think creatively and will not shy away from reaching out to our neediest citizens.

Ruthellen S. Rubin
Development Consultant
Yardley, Pa.

Copyright © 2008 The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Opinion: Supporting Nonprofits in Tough Economic Times

Wall Street vs. Main Street? One thing is for sure, no more Easy Street.

The headlines are so frightening that we are becoming numb to the repercussions of a stock market free fall and the end of our financial system as we know it. Who knows what the coming months will bring?What scares me most is the impact on those charitable organizations that tackle the challenges no one else can, or will: the starving, the homeless, the disabled, the aged, the infirm, the addicted, the unemployed, the uneducated and anyone unable to help him/herself. Our nonprofit organizations are being hit with the "perfect storm" (and I don’t mean "perfect" in the positive sense.) Some of their most reliable funders such as Wachovia and Merrill Lynch are gone; government funding is shrinking at an alarming rate; foundations' endowments are plummeting leaving less to give; costs of food and fuel have never been higher; and needy clients are lined up at the door in unprecedented numbers.

Connie Mercer, executive director of HomeFront, has never seen this level of demand: "We had a record 104 people lined up at our door for a free bag of groceries in one five-hour period last week. I estimate roughly a 20% increase in demand for food this month. The new faces we are seeing include well dressed, educated individuals and lots of elderly."

At the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, executive director Dennis Micai told me that demand is already up by 7-8% and donations are not keeping apace of that need. "I was really startled last week," says Micai, "when an elderly couple who used to volunteer for us, came in for a meal."

Connie Mercer told a similar story: "A lovely lady was waiting at the door when we opened up last Wednesday. She looked so familiar and told me it was probably because she "adopted" two homeless children last Christmas, buying gifts and clothing for them for the holiday. She never dreamt she would be coming to us for help. She was unable to pay her rent and about to lose the roof over her head."

Holiday Appeal season, with its plethora of solicitations, will be upon us in the coming weeks. There will be pleas and unbelievably compelling stories asking us to support food pantries, hospitals, zoos, libraries, clinics, counseling centers, environmental causes, day care centers, schools, synagogues, and churches. Once again, we will be asked to donate, advocate, celebrate, run, walk, solicit, foster, promote and sponsor on behalf of the causes most dear to us.

So, how is it going to play out this year?

When all else fails, we turn to our family, friends and neighbors for help. Our local human service, health, educational and cultural organizations need us now more than ever. We are their family, friends and neighbors. Of course it will be more difficult for everyone as we are all struggling to pay the bills. However, this is the year we must be creative and consider where our holiday dollars can have the greatest impact. It is the year to give a donation in the name of our family members or friends rather than giving a fruit basket. I cannot think of a better year than this, to have a party and ask our guests to make a donation to our favorite charity rather than bringing us a bottle of wine or a red pillar candle. It is the year to show our children that there is always an avenue to be charitable, no matter how small the amount.

Undoubtedly, this year money will be scarce and you will have less to give. However I believe this community is capable of rising to the challenge in support of our nonprofit sector. It will be up to us, the citizens in Mercer County, to keep our nonprofit organizations strong and vigilant. They are the last resort for so many of our neighbors, and could someday, be the last resort for us.

Letter to the Editor: Chronicle of Philanthropy

Don't Let Standards Inhibit Risk Taking 

Opinion: Supporting Nonprofits in Tough Economic Times

Wall Street vs. Main Street? One thing is for sure, no more Easy Street.  Read more...

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