Charities face slow season of giving

A person puts in money to donate can.

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Kai Ryssdal: There's a twist to the season of giving this year.
A lot of us are cutting back.
Buying fewer gifts, going out a little less as we try to balance our personal budgets.
But there are still people finding ways to squeeze in some philanthropy.
Because as good as it feels to get, it can feel even better to give.
Today we're going to start our series on philanthropy with this question.
Given the way the economy's been, are we giving more or less this year?
Historically, Americans are a generous bunch.
But with so many families struggling to get by it's easy to see why groups that depend on charity are bracing for the worst.
Jaime Bedrin reports.


Jaime Bedrin: Like many New Yorkers, Deirdre McArdle Manning is passionate about the arts. She always gives money to Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic. But not this year.

Deirdre McArdle Manning: Anyone who asked me, basically, I would give them a little bit of money even if I couldn't afford to give them a lot. I can't spend the money on the charities when I can't pay my own bills. So I have to kind of prioritize in a way that I've never had to before.

Manning's married to a doctor and says a doctor's salary doesn't go as far as it used to. Utilities and food are more expensive now. So, she's adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward giving.

Manning: I want to see how things are generally to see if, you know, the 401ks come up, the savings accounts come up. All of these things that, you know, I'm in my late 50s. I'm not in my 30s and have 20 years to, you know, let everything recover.

Schools, universities and shelters are seeing their donors take the same approach. Tom Hall raises money for the New York City Rescue Mission. He says a few foundations have temporarily called a moratorium on gifts. He's concerned but is optimistic donors will continue funding organizations serving those in dire need.

Tom Hall: A lot of people think what we do is of a high priority. So in terms of the pecking order in giving, we may move up in times like this.

Patrick Rooney is with Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy. He says some foundations will likely prioritize their giving.

Patrick Rooney: Some of them are saying that there is going to be greater giving to basic human services and trying to feed people and shelter them and train them for jobs and so on, as opposed to giving them money that might have traditionally gone to things like education and the arts.

Ultimately Rooney says foundations plan over several years; individuals give what they can, when they can. Tom Nammack is headmaster of the New Jersey private school Montclair Kimberley Academy. Wall Street's collapse has meant a change in circumstance for some of the students' parents. Nammack says giving has slowed but he'll still be asking for money.

Tom Nammack: So, if we backed away from that, I think that would be a huge mistake. It's not the asking that is the problem. People, I think, expect it. And it's almost a measure of respect that you go back to them with the hope and the expectation that they can do the same thing they've done for you in the past.

Back in New York City, Bobbi Mark with Barnard College's development office says her school is feeling the pinch too. She says calls from families asking for more aid have doubled since the school recently sent out spring tuition bills.

Bobbi Mark: You can't say to the entire sophomore class, "It's a bad time. We don't have enough financial aid. Why don't you all take a year off." You can actually say, "We're not going to repaint this building for another year or two."

At a time when people are giving less, donors are making more targeted choices. And when it comes to spending what's donated, recipients like Barnard College are too.

In New York, I'm Jaime Bedrin for Marketplace.

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