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Foundations back new effort to ignite Americans' generosity
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Foundations back new effort to ignite Americans' generosity

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In a new effort backed by more than $2 million in grants from the nation’s biggest foundations, a group of philanthropy leaders Tuesday announced the public kickoff off a campaign to drive greater giving of time and money, especially from middle- and low-income Americans. Noting that financial donations dropped to an all-time low — just 50% of people give — and anger at billionaires and income inequality is growing, organizers of the effort said it is crucial to “reignite generosity — and engage every American in the process.”

In a document outlining the commission’s work, organizers said they worried that in a time of growing division in the United States, one of the key indicators of connectedness crucial to a functioning democracy — support of nonprofit efforts — faced an “uncertain” future. The panel, which calls itself the Generosity Commission, pledged to look both at how philanthropy supports democracy — and at how it has the potential to undermine it.

“Middle-class households are dropping out of giving,” said Jane Wales, vice president for philanthropy and society at the Aspen Institute and chair of the commission. “That’s really worrisome for the health of democracy.”

The 17-member commission includes representatives of large grant makers including the Gates, MacArthur, and Skoll foundations and charity leaders from groups that include the Salvation Army and Points of Light.

Wales said members were chosen to include a variety of types of philanthropic organizations at different stages of their development, in different parts of the country, and across the political spectrum.

The Generosity Commission has budgeted a total of about $3.8 million for its work and is actively raising money. It has received grants from some of the organizations that employ commission members. Grants came from the Gates, Kaufman, Mott, Sage, and Templeton foundations, the Lilly Endowment, Fidelity Charitable, fundraising software company Blackbaud, and others.

The commission said it planned to “build broad national momentum and bipartisan congressional support for positive change to reimagine generosity across America.”

Many experts in philanthropy, including Aisha Alexander-Young, president of Give Blck, a nonprofit that works to increase giving to organizations founded by Black people, welcomed the work of the commission.

Philanthropy has a reputation problem because it has been “abused” as a tax shelter by too many wealthy donors, said Alexander-Young, who previously served as vice president for strategy and equity at the Meyer Foundation.

“With big philanthropy and some nonprofits, there’s a disconnect,” especially among younger donors. “Younger generations want to be able to build community and not feel like being a donor or volunteering is something that’s giving you exclusivity or status but is giving you an opportunity to be engaged with your neighbors and community.”

For many years, nonprofit leaders have been worried about a slide in the share of Americans who give, which seems to have accelerated in the wake of the Great Recession.

Historically, about two-thirds of households made philanthropic gifts; by 2018, that number had dropped to under half, representing tens of millions of families that had stopped giving to charity since 2000, according to a study conducted by the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy.

The declines have been especially steep among middle- and low-income donors as contributions from rich people have helped overall giving rise.

The current concentration of giving among the ultra-wealthy and declines in volunteering are cause for concern, said Wales, because they suggest that many people feel their contributions wouldn’t make a difference. Declines in giving may also be a symptom of a disengaged and battered electorate.

But Wales says she is heartened by the informal efforts that have sprouted during the pandemic, such as local voluntary efforts to provide groceries and other basics to those in need.

The commission is “an opportunity to show how spontaneous actions by citizens suggest a trend in the other direction and possibilities for getting out of the polarization and dysfunction we find ourselves in,” said Wales.“Those folks feel engaged. And maybe that’s more meaningful over time than sending a check to a far-away organization.”

Michael Hartmann, senior fellow at the Capitol Research Center, a conservative research group, hopes the panel takes a broad look at the work of nonprofits.

The criticisms faced by donors are being dealt out by both conservative and liberal populists, who view endowments and the use of donor-advised funds with suspicion, Hartmann said. He noted, in particular, the candidacy of J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” for U.S. Senate. Vance, an Ohio Republican, has called the Ford Foundation a publicly subsidized “cancer on society.” Vance said in an interview on Fox News that Ford advances a “radical left-wing ideology,” such as the teaching of critical race theory.

Hartmann said critiques of philanthropy are sure to continue, as Republicans face good odds in recapturing the U.S. House after next year’s midterm elections. Republicans will be in charge of the Congress, either half of it or all of it next time,” Hartmann predicted. ”You can darn well bet that there might be some hearings or investigations. Populist conservative attacks on philanthropy are not going to go away.”

In addition to conducting research, the commission will work to get feedback from the public.

The commission hasn’t designed how that will work. It will start with using focus groups, surveys, and social-media campaigns to invite the broader public to weigh in on giving. Following that, the commission may seek high-profile efforts to spread the word about its work, like advertising at major sporting events or on popular television shows.

“We want to capture and celebrate the ways in which giving. volunteering, and civic engagement are being reimagined before our eyes,” said Suzy Antounian, the director of the commission. “And our sense is that research alone won’t get us there.”

Philanthropy has been an essential part of the American experience since native Americans provided for colonial settlers, said Jackie Bouvier Copeland, founder of Black Philanthropy Month. But for too long, she said, informal giving has been done “under the nose” of the philanthropic establishment.

“We need institutional philanthropy to respect the creativity and energy around mutual aid and assistance that is emerging all over the U.S. from every demographic and not to treat it as sort of a diluted or inferior form of philanthropy,” she said.

She hopes the commission will take serious consideration of the benefits provided by informal givers. But even more important, she said, philanthropy will continue to lose the trust of the broader public if the commission doesn’t take action following its national conversation.

If no action is taken, she said, the work of the commission will be viewed as merely a public-relations campaign to elevate the standing of philanthropy and rich donors in the minds of the American public, without doing anything to steer more money to help society.

Said Bouvier Copeland: “This commission will do more harm than good if it listens and does nothing.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: alex.daniels@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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