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Stimulating the charity sector

Marketplace Staff May 2, 2008

Stimulating the charity sector

Marketplace Staff May 2, 2008


Tess Vigeland: Many of you are feeling between $300 and $1,200 richer this week — or more if you have kids.

Uncle Sam started direct deposits of economic stimulus money last Monday, a week earlier than expected. Paper checks will go in the mail starting on Friday.

Retailers are offering all kinds of sweeteners to help you spend that money. Our advice, of course, is to pay off your debt or add to your retirement account.

Another option? Let someone else spend it.

Danielle Karson reports.

Danielle Karson: The numbers aren’t promising for nonprofits. Only 3 percent of those polled in a recent survey said they plan to give some or all of their rebate check to charity.

Andrew Hastings of the National Philanthropic Trust says he understands why many households’ bank accounts will get first dibs.

Andrew Hastings: I think right now, people are looking at the immediacy of their conditions that they’re facing, you know, with gas prices high, the overall economic conditions, and I think they’re gonna be putting that towards their immediate family needs.

Because of that, many nonprofits won’t be going after the rebate checks, but some are zeroing in on the one-time windfall. Take the Catalogue for Philanthropy, which has set up an online program so nonprofits can tell their story and hopefully light a fire under would-be donors’ good intentions.

The Catalogue’s Kathy Jablonski:

Kathy Jablonski: We’ve created an e-tool for all of our charities that’s customized to them that they can e-mail out, encouraging people connected to their organizations to donate a portion of their rebate checks back to them.

One of those charities is the Manna Food Center in Rockville, Maryland. Volunteers are unloading dozens of crates of food at the center. It distributes two million pounds of donated food each year to families, homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Amy Gabala, who runs the center, says the economic slump is hitting food banks hard, forcing many families to turn to charity for help.

Amy Gabala: I see people here who are coming for the first time. 500 families every week turn to Manna for food. The contributions we would receive through these tax rebate checks would help us feed the enormous number of people who are turning to Manna.

In the latest newsletter, Gabala asks people to donate some of their rebate check to Manna. Her pitch: the money would pay for trucks to collect food from grocery stories that would otherwise be tossed in the dumpster. She says $75 will feed 50 families.

It’s recess time at Rolling Hills Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland. You’ll find Robin Pollack here, volunteering her time as playground monitor. She plans to give her entire rebate check to food banks and hopes other people will donate as well, but she suspects it hasn’t occurred to them:

Robin Pollack: A lot of peoples’ lives are extremely busy, but if they hear a plea, then maybe they would think “Hey, you know, I can afford to give some or all of it away. Now that I’ve heard, yeah, I’ll give that away.”

Americans are a generous bunch; they gave nearly $300 billion to charity in 2006. Carol Bracewell hopes to tap into that generosity in her hometown Madison, Wisconsin. She’s set up a web site — ForwardMadison.org — to encourage communities to pool their rebates for charitable causes.

Carol Bracewell: The country is going into debt to give you this gift. Would you say to your son, “Yeah, you know when I got $500, I spent it on a plasma TV,” or would you say, “When I got that $500, I put it in that playground that elementary school kids are going to play on?”

Politicians want us to spend the rebate checks to boost consumer spending and help jumpstart the economy. Charities say while they’re not in the business of turning a profit, they actually make up a hefty slice of the country’s economic growth: their operations account for 5 percent of the gross domestic product. That’s more than a trillion dollars.

In Washington, I’m Danielle Karson for Marketplace.

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