(CNN) — Recession questions, housing bailouts, stock market tumbles, growing job losses — faced with troubling economic news at seemingly every turn, many Americans’ first thoughts may be of their own finances before charitable giving.
The Giving USA Foundation found in a study this year that donations don’t keep up with the rate of inflation during recessions. And about a third of Americans think the situations facing the stock market and financial institutions will affect them immediately, but another third think it will affect them eventually, according to an October CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll.
CNN talked with the leaders of six charitable organizations to see what they’re doing to address the tough economic times and what everyday folks can do to make a difference, even without spending a dime.
How is your charitable organization addressing the tough economy and perhaps a higher demand for their services?
JIM GIBBONS, president and CEO of GOODWILL INDUSTRIES: At Goodwill, we understand that to be successful at work, everyone needs to feel confident that their families are healthy and safe and that their home life is stable. One of Goodwill’s priorities is our Family Strengthening Initiative. Our goal is to assess individual family needs and provide access to community resources such as youth programs and childcare so that people can stabilize their families while identifying and obtaining employment opportunities. In addition, we provide financial education and asset development services, including money-management skills, to help people learn how to manage their money and save for the future.
Another way Goodwill aids families is by helping them to earn a paycheck and take full advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit program. Through EITC, Goodwill agencies across the country provide free tax preparation services for working families with children that have annual incomes below $37,000 and who are eligible for a refundable tax credit.
JONATHAN RECKFORD, CEO of HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL: Low-income families are in need now, perhaps more than ever, of access to affordable housing. We are asking people to donate to Habitat’s work, to join us as an advocate for affordable housing or to volunteer time to help build houses or serve on a local committee.
Habitat is also developing innovative partnerships across the country. One example is that along the Gulf Coast, Habitat has partnered with the Salvation Army to build even more houses in areas that are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Another example is that Habitat has joined with the not-for-profit organization Thrivent Financial for Lutherans to develop an alliance with its local chapters that have helped to build more than 1,000 houses in the United States since 2005. We are also forming new partnerships, like those with for-profit homebuilders who are developing mixed-income communities that leave room for affordable housing, including Habitat housing. These efforts, among many others, will help Habitat build more homes and serve more families. Our diverse family of Habitat affiliates across the United States is constantly innovating to meet the challenges they face every day, including during the current economic climate.
HELENE GAYLE, president and CEO of CARE: Meaningful partnerships, with the public and the private sector, become even more important in economically challenging times. Fortunately, we have been able to connect with an increasing number of corporations, foundations and individual philanthropists who are eager to devote time and resources to the fight against poverty. Issues such as climate change, the global food crisis, the financial upheaval can increase attention to the plight of vulnerable people; it is our responsibility to help tell their stories and to support them in their efforts to build a better life for themselves and their families. We also are preparing to build new partnerships within the new administration to ensure a continued commitment from the U.S. government to the fight against poverty.
NANCY LUBLIN, CEO of DOSOMETHING.ORG: We just launched a Growth Capitalization Offering, similar to a for-profit IPO. We are bringing the accountability and transparency of the free market to the not-for-profit sector.
AL BRANDEL, president of LIONS CLUBS INTERNATIONAL: Even before the current economic challenge, we were working on plans to make volunteering as part of a Lions Club easier to do. For example, the fastest-growing type of new Lion Club members are families that join as a group. In 2007, we were the first service club organization to offer a family membership plan and to provide hands-on service programs that involve the entire family. We not only made it easier for families to join by offering a reduced membership fee, but many local Lions Clubs — some 45,000 worldwide — are changing when they meet and what projects they run to accommodate today’s busier families. We are really excited about this approach because volunteering often becomes a lifetime commitment for a person when they are exposed to it as children. And in these uncertain times, we obviously need more people to give back to their communities and to help others need.
BRIAN GALLAGHER, president and CEO of UNITED WAY: Live United is a call to action for all people to join this movement. We want everyone to see themselves as part of the change needed in our communities. We’re making greater use of technology to provide opportunities for people to give, advocate and volunteer. Our Web site has simple ways for people to tell their stories, to give locally, nationally or globally, to find volunteer opportunities and to make their voices heard on critical issues. We’ve partnered with several online communities to help spread the word about Live United and with technology partners to offer a cell phone text-to-give option.
If people are short on cash this holiday season, what are some alternatives to monetary donations?
DOSOMETHING.ORG: You might not have money to spend this holiday, but you definitely have time and energy. Use it well. Search our action matrix for something to do with your family or at your church or with your basketball team. Make a difference … and have fun doing it with people you love.
GOODWILL: This holiday season, people should think of Goodwill when cleaning out their closets. Goodwill accepts an array of gently used products including clothing, household goods, kitchenwares and furniture. Some Goodwill agencies even accept vehicles. Donors should check the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site before donating to make sure they don’t have any unsafe or recalled items.
UNITED WAY: Consider volunteering as a family. Community service is an effective way to teach children about social issues, to show them a different perspective of the world, to advance the common good and to understand that the world is a better place when we care for one another. While enjoying quality family time, you’re also teaching positive values, creating a new generation of volunteers and increasing your family’s commitment to community.
LIONS CLUB: Give your time. If you can’t afford to buy a gift for a loved one, make a point to do something special for that person or persons in your life that doesn’t involve spending money. If possible, encourage your children to spend an hour doing something special for their grandparents. Give your spouse an hour of your undivided attention. You can even print up your own “gift certificates” redeemable for one hour of your time. Be creative. Nothing dictates that a gift has to be of a material nature. It’s important to remember that simple acts of kindness are heroic.
CARE: Instead of buying gifts, people can make a contribution to a charitable organization in a loved one’s name. They can also volunteer — alone or with family and friends — with organizations that provide direct services. And they can host gatherings to share information with others through film and printed materials about the impact of poverty on half the world’s population: people who live on less than $2 a day. Even small contributions can make a huge difference.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY: There are many possibilities. A family or group of friends could help build a Habitat house in their community or join their local Habitat affiliate to host a fundraiser I read of where a family sold their house, downsized into a smaller home and donated some of the proceeds to support Habitat’s work in Ghana. Of course, many individual supporters give smaller gestures of support, but the spirit is the same. People can always reach out respectfully and compassionately to those near and far who need a hand up.
Tell us about a volunteer in your organization whom you consider a hero.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY: Personally, I consider every volunteer a hero. Each person who swings a hammer or serves on a committee or sacrifices to make a donation, gives from his or her heart and truly cares about those in need of housing. I find a special inspiration in Habitat’s homeowner families who help to build their own home or the home of their neighbors. Habitat homeowners are committed to being part of their own housing solution, and our mission could not continue without them. I’ve been blessed to meet many of our homeowner partner families around the world and find a true hero in each one.
CARE: Scott Karell, a Boston University junior, comes to mind. A few years ago while helping build a school in Ghana, he was inspired to do more. He’s organized events at schools and even at the local library, getting people to talk about their experiences and help educate others about the world around us. He found dozens of people who could also be considered “heroes,” from a realtor to a fraternity brother to a professor to a 12-year-old who raised $6,000 for children in Guatemala. Scott once said that “the heroes of this country are the ordinary citizens who have answered the call of service to help others. By volunteering, you are helping out that community and ultimately that society.” Young people like Scott are the heroes who are helping make our world a better place.
DOSOMETHING.ORG: Kimmie Weeks should be a household name. He was born in Liberia and was left for dead in a pile of bodies. He lay there thinking, “If I live, I vow to spend the rest of my life helping children in war-torn countries.” Fortunately, Kimmie escaped Liberia and kept his promise. His organization, Youth Action International, brings college volunteers from the USA to six countries around the world to help young people reunite with their families and be educated, among other things. Kimmie is 24 years old. He isn’t someone we’re grooming to lead when he is a “grown-up.” He is someone we are proud to follow right now.
LIONS CLUB: That would be difficult, since we have 1.3 million heroes in our organization. But I will relate an incident that best describes what our 1.3 million heroes do on a daily basis. A few years ago, my wife, Maureen, and I helped our Lions Club and others from our community build a home in New York for a family that has one member with a disability. Maureen dug holes to put in a fence. I used a jackhammer in the basement. It was hands-on volunteer work. When we finished the home, the 5-year-old girl in the family took Maureen by the hand and said, “I want to show you my room.” She had never had a room of her own, and she was beaming with joy. And so were we. It brought tears of joy to our eyes. Volunteers all over the world are recreating that moment each and every day. Volunteers are heroes. Just ask that 5-year-old girl.
UNITED WAY: Young people who are passionate about making a difference really inspire me. Mike Brooks is a great example of an inspiring and entrepreneurial young leader. As a student at University of Iowa, Mike was highly active in efforts to mobilize student volunteers. He created the 10,000 Hours Show, a campus-based volunteer outreach program that culminates in a free concert for volunteers. Mike is now working with United Way to spread the 10,000 Hours Show, Student United Ways, Alternative Spring Break and the United Way Challenge on Facebook Causes to campuses across the country. Through inspiring young people, Mike embodies Live United.
GOODWILL: Goodwill Industries International named Denice Cooper the 2008 Volunteer of the Year. After escaping New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, Cooper relocated to Texas, where she dedicated herself to helping her fellow evacuees as a volunteer. She decided to continue her service by volunteering at Goodwill, where she spent more than 900 hours mentoring children with mental and emotional disabilities. Today, Cooper provides individual and group mentoring as well as structured activities for children served by Goodwill. She also mentors adults with disabilities who are entering the work force and need ongoing support.
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