For many charitable causes, the end of the calendar year is critically important. And for good reason. As one of Charles Dickens' characters observes in "A Christmas Carol," philanthropic giving surges during the holiday season because it is "a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices."
There's no question that want is as keenly felt this year as ever. Abundance, though, may be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Leaders of Minnesota nonprofits are voicing their concern that donors are growing weary.
Nonprofits have been fielding extra requests for money all year — ever since the COVID-19 crisis reached American shores. The requests took on local urgency here in Minnesota last Memorial Day, when George Floyd's death set off spasms of destructive violence.
If you think donors are weary, consider relief workers themselves, who must be exhausted. At the Sheridan Story, a nonprofit that helps Minneapolis public school students stave off food insecurity, demand spiked when the pandemic closed schools. Suddenly, the agency had to gear up to package as many meals in a day as it had produced in a pre-pandemic week.
Loaves and Fishes, another nonprofit that delivers food to the needy, saw donations surge during the early days of the pandemic, only to subside to normal pre-virus levels as the crisis wore on. "We're still here and we're still doing this work," the agency's Cathy Maes told a Star Tribune reporter, "and it's harder than ever."
Give to the Max Day, the annual giving event organized by GiveMN, has set a record every year since 2016. Last year it raised $21.6 million. This year, GiveMN held a special campaign to raise funds for needs related to COVID-19, and brought in an additional $5 million. Will that event subtract from this year's Give to the Max Day, scheduled for Nov. 19?
And what of the other factors that affect charitable giving? Changes to the tax code in 2017 reduced some taxpayers' incentive to give. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that donations start to suffer during recessions and times of high unemployment. At a seasonally adjusted 7.4%, Minnesota's unemployment rate is somewhat better than the national level, but it's still high — and in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the rate remains above 10%. Add to that the uncertainty of a looming presidential election and a stubborn pandemic, and it's easy to see why generosity might feel like a reckless impulse.
But it's just as easy to see why that generosity is vitally important. An estimated 10% of Minnesotans live in poverty, as do 12% of the state's children. And the poor are far from the only beneficiaries of the work nonprofits do; the list of organizations that receive funds from GiveMN, for example, includes schools, churches, animal welfare groups, the environment, museums and other causes.
From Doctors Without Borders, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Center for Victims of Torture to Migizi, the ACLU of Minnesota and DanceMN; from food shelves to theater groups, from libraries to services for the blind — Minnesotans channel their generosity to almost every conceivable purpose and public interest. If those causes had to rely on government funds for their support, or if government had to provide those services, the public purse would be stretched to impossible dimensions.
In Dickens' story, Scrooge grumbled that he paid to support prisons, the treadmill and the workhouses, and shouldn't have to make charitable gifts as well. Now, as then, the government makes a poor substitute for human compassion. We hope that, as giving season begins in earnest — and as we near the end of this crisis-infested year — Minnesotans will once again step up and provide what the government can't.