Charitable giving steaming along through recession

Many Christian non-profits are weathering the current economic storm, and those that have seen stronger-than-expected support see it as a spiritual mandate. There’s little debate that non-profits across the board – Christian or not – took a hit during the fourth quarter of 2008 when the recession was accelerating at a breakneck pace. While the worst may not be over, stabilization in the housing industry and the more frequent stock market upticks indicate a bottom from which to rebound may be at hand. The commitment to giving to local churches has generally remained on an even keel throughout the downturn, according to Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. “The anecdotal information we’ve heard related to the economy seems to indicate that churches, after seeing some modest drop in giving, may have stabilized,” Busby said. “We would really always expect people to tithe to the church first and then contribute to para-church organizations.” Those non-profits are being helped through recognition of difficult times by Christians blended with the biblical mandate to help the less fortunate. “God is coming to rescue of church and para-church groups in unpredictable ways,” Busby said. “We’ve had reports of groups receiving significant gifts they never would have dreamed of. In one case a donor put forward a $350,000 matching gift that was subscribed to in record time. “I was at an Association of Gospel Rescue Missions conference and they said their donations of gifts in kind like clothing and food were up. Organizations that deal with adoption of children and helping orphanages are holding strong as people can directly see the benefits of their gifts. Gifts to help the poor and needy at this time seem to be of special interest to donors. It is clear Christians are standing in the gap and God’s work continues to flourish.” The emphasis of giving to organizations which help the poor continues a trend with began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said Sandra Miniutti. She is the vice president of marketing and communications for Charity Navigator, a leading organization in vetting the stability and legitimacy of 5,400 charities. “If you look at the history of giving in America, it doesn’t change much year to year,” Miniutti said. “The only thing you see impacting it is the state of the overall economy, and over the last six months we’ve seen that. “One thing we have seen is an increase in giving to charities that help the poor after Katrina. It sounded alarm bells with so many groups going into New Orleans. That whole crisis really brought to light the struggle of the poor in America and the recession seems to be having an impact on that as well.” The financial re-evaluations brought on by the recession have emphasized the need to carefully examine charitable giving. “Now you research everything you do from buying a book to buying a stock,” Miniutti said. “It’s natural for people to start looking that way at charitable giving.” She used the wealth of breast cancer charities as an example. Charity Navigator examines over 1,000 breast cancer-related charities dealing with everything from advocacy to research to patient services. She also said to look for charities which spend, as a rule of thumb, at least 75 percent on programs and 25 percent on overhead and fundraising. “Just to get an idea about a charity’s efficiency with finances, asking them directly for their (IRS) Form 990 is a good idea,” she said. “They are required by law provide the last three years worth of filings. If they avoid you, you probably need to move on to another group.” Another pitfall to avoid is spreading giving too thin. While you may want to investigate charities the same way you might an investment, a diverse giving portfolio is not necessarily an asset. “To be a proactive savvy donor, you want to concentrate giving,” she said. “If you do your homework and pick a few charities to support over the long haul, you will bring about more change and see your money at work.” Charity Navigator also puts forth a coveted four-star rating non-profits can tout. Compassion International has earned that rating for the past seven years and it has helped it weather the recession in addition to another sought-after commodity, brand loyalty. “With our sponsor and donor base as Christians we still have a mandate to give even in difficult times,” said Kathy Redmond, Compassion’s communications director. “God blesses us. We deal with the most giving segment of society. They step out in faith and understand the trickle-down effect our economic problems have on the rest of the world. It is a blessing to see a picture of a child and to see that child develop creates a bond that is very powerful.” She said child sponsorship rates are up in 2009, as are revenues at about an 8 percent clip. The recession has, however, forced Compassion to be careful about concentrating where it puts its resources, as has the dollar’s strength compared to other currencies. “The exchange rate is making it more difficult for us to get as much as we would like in some countries we work in,” Redmond said. “The differences in rates and the inflation of the dollar have been a little bit of an issue.” Baltimore-based World Relief has seen its giving numbers stay relatively even despite a drop in giving through churches. “Our faithful donors who have been giving $25, $50, $100 a year have been hanging in there with us,” said Jan Kary, World Relief’s media relations director. “We have also been blessed by some very generous estate gifts, so our fundraising is right on target. Our church giving is a little bit down, but there’s not a lot you can do. Churches certainly need to take care of themselves.” Moving forward Kary encouraged prospective donors to not hesitate even if they don’t have a particular location or service in mind. “Sometimes donors think they are not being effective if aren’t addressing a specific need and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. “Where help is most needed, it gives us the flexibility to respond and leverages our work all around the world.” Links: Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability: http://www.ecfa.org/ Charity Navigator: http://www.charitynavigator.org/ Compassion International: http://www.compassion.com/default.htm World Relief: http://community.wr.org/Page.aspx?pid=1823

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