In the wake of federal shutdown, philanthropists step up

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington on October 5, 2013, the fifth day of the government shutdown.

Since 2000, Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy has been compiling a list of publicly reported, charitable donations by U.S. residents, corporations and private foundations, that exceed $1 million. In 13 years, there have been around seventy thousand such donations. Few, though, have been quite like the $10 million donated by billionaire John Arnold and his wife, Laura, to keep Head Start programs in six states afloat after the government shutdown blocked the flow of grant money to programs supporting around 7,000 children.

"During the recession and the post-recession period, we have seen an increasing number of large gifts being made to either local, or state, and in some cases, federal entitites," said Una Osili, director of research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Osili said what sets the Arnolds' donation apart is that, rather than giving the money to a school foundation or a museum,  common recipients of charitable giving, it is for a specific government program. 

The timing struck Katherina Rosqueta, founding director of The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania as representative of the type of emergency donation normally pledged in the wake of a natural disaster. 

"Like an emergency for a major disaster, what we're seeing from the Arnolds is that they are coming in to address what could be a real emergency for the lifetime prospects of the kids in these programs," Rosqueta said. 

In this case, however, there are many who would argue that the emergency was created by elected officials. Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for Head Start, balked at the idea that the Arnolds' generosity might be letting a dysfunctional government off the hook. 

"This is a stopgap measure that we are hopeful will keep a handful of programs open through the end of the month," Aman said. "There's no way private dollars can sustain the delivery of these services." 

About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.

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