Giving in a Difficult Economy: Return to Sender—If You Can

by | in Opinion

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By Dave Felsenthal

Few personal letters still arrive by “snail-mail,” but the pile of catalogs, announcements and requests for donations seems to be growing. Who is sending those solicitation envelopes, and how should you respond?

At a wedding last summer in Manhattan, I shared a table with my old friend Danny. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, so after some lively dancing we took a break to catch up on each other’s lives. Someone at our table mentioned the barrage of solicitations that we’re subject to these days. “Donate for this, donate for that,” he said. “Every time you turn around there’s a new urgent cause being presented.”

Danny observed that even snail mail was becoming overwhelming. “It’s getting hard to make intelligent choices when charity solicitations pour in,” he said. As I began to respond, Danny interrupted me. “But these campaigns are needed,” he added seriously. “They really, really help.”

Readers of this magazine know the importance of giving to worthy causes. Tzedakah is a central part of the Jewish way of life. We routinely earmark portions of our earnings to help those less fortunate than us; this is especially true in recent times, with so many people having fallen on hard times due to the current state of the economy.

Yet, Danny’s next comment stunned me and underscored why this impulse to be charitable is so much more important in these times. “I’ve been on both the giving and receiving side of the mailings,” my friend confided. “Trust me, it saves lives.”

In the early 1990s, Danny was blessed with a string of business successes that included investments in a national clothing chain. Always a generous spirit, he used his modest wealth to underwrite a new school in his hometown, establish a camp scholarship fund and support numerous worthy causes in the US and in Israel. Then his fortune began to change.

“As the economy soured in 2007,” he recalled, “and one investment after another failed, it was only a matter of months before I was completely under water.”

Just then, the chatan and kallah made their grand entrance, thankfully diverting Danny’s attention from my shocked face.

It should have come as no surprise, for we are living through the most economically difficult time in the recent history of our country. Grim reports indicated that between June 2009, when the recession officially “ended,” and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income still fell 6.7 percent.

During the main banquet, I asked Danny about his current situation and how he managed to get through the worst of it. His answer was inspiring, and it should be such to every “small donor.”

While regaining his footing in the market, Danny accepted a support check every week from a well-known organization. “Many people are going through the same thing right now,” he explained.

The maxim “Tzedakah can rescue one from death” has never taken on a more real meaning. Not only is this a behest for Jews to be generous as a means of “averting the severe decree,” but it is an actual lifeline to those who benefit from such giving.

Nothing is more disheartening to the director of a charity than deciding which of their programs must be cut because the money is simply not there.

There was a time when it was easy to discount the impact of the average donor’s giving. But today, the sheer magnitude of the task facing charitable institutions brings the true source of help into clear focus.

Block grants from institutions and major donations have been severely curtailed due to the strained economy. The loss of these funding sources poses a serious challenge to the survival of charitable programs. This is where the individual donor can shine. This is where we each become a true guardian angel.

Many well-known organizations are finding that up until the economic downturn, 75 percent of funding came from a few large gifts and the remaining 25 percent from smaller denominations. Now the reverse is true—most of their funding comes from small donations solicited by mail, phone and e-mail campaigns. These donations keep organizations afloat in these most trying times.

The amount of each donation is proving secondary to the number of responses. The power of numbers means that thousands or tens of thousands can respond to a handful of causes that they understand and relate to. This is how relief efforts, job-placement services and tuition funds are surviving and growing against all odds; this is how organizations are still able to help people.

Nothing is more disheartening to the director of a charity than deciding which of his programs must be cut because the money is simply not there. Although there are many worthy causes vying for your tzedakah dollars, and at times it may seem overwhelming, remember that these organizations are literally saving lives each and every day.

Yes, the phone solicitation during dinner time may seem like a nuisance, the hundreds of mail requests may seem like a waste of money, but stop for a moment and think about the impact that your donation will have. It may help your neighbor find a job, a family pay their rent or perhaps feed a hungry child. Many of these programs have saved entire families from falling apart. A crucial example is the OU Job Board, which has helped thousands of men and women get back on their feet after devastating setbacks.

At the midtown wedding that night, Danny underscored the impact of these initiatives. “It is amazing to me that I was helped by people in the exact same situation as me who spared a few dollars here and there.”

That the needs are greater than ever is apparent everywhere, but as Danny concludes, so are the opportunities. “The average person should know that simply opening the envelope is a move in the right direction,” he says. “Every one of us is the Big Donor now.”

Rabbi Dave Felsenthal is currently the director of OU Alumni Connections and OU Taglit-Birthright Israel. He and his wife, Chani, live with their six children in Passaic, New Jersey.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2011.

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