Friday, July 8, 2011

Political gifts are not charitable, but charitable gifts can be political

Ants that our dogs chase on the driveway are part of a huge community that extends far past our lot. In a similar interconnectedness, our suburban lives link to an enormous system of trade and exchange within the U.S. and beyond. Just as our purchases are part of the global economy, our charitable gifts to U.S. organizations are inextricably part of the worldwide exchange, whether we are giving for international aid or not.

I’ve been wondering lately how to use our giving (in a small way) to help create jobs and grow the U.S. economy, just as I try to do by buying from local businesses and deliberately looking for Made in the USA labels. There are several approaches through which giving can stimulate employment. One is gifts to (re)training programs, so that people can develop skills in fields where hiring is on an increase. Another is support for projects like one-stop jobs centers that link people with existing skills to open positions.

But more important in the U.S. economy now than helping people find jobs is generating demand for goods and services, so that more companies and organizations need to hire. Nonprofits can help stimulate demand, too. One method is through nonprofit support for entrepreneurs, because new products and services create new demand (anyone buy an iPad or Kindle lately?) JumpStart, a successful Ohio program, recently announced plans to go national, with JumpStart America. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has many programs that support entrepreneurs, and many organizations, including universities, are setting up “social entrepreneurship” programs, to help create and market products or services that benefit people’s lives—things like micro-lending, water filters, safer cook stoves, “green” technologies, and so on.

Another strategy is to give enough to nonprofits that they can create jobs in their own organizations. However, in recent years, funding for new initiatives and capital projects has generally lagged giving for operations and immediate needs. With recent state actions and budget crises, plus proposed cuts in domestic spending at the federal level, nonprofit organizations are in a world of hurt that philanthropy alone will not heal.

Still, even small donations can make a difference, according Give A Little by Wendy Smith. The "butterfly effect" instructs us that even small acts in complex systems have consequences. In addition to thinking about a match between our values and a program's mission, the organization's capacity to address the issue(s), and its impact, I will be adding another criterion to our charitable choices: might it help boost demand in the U.S., leading in some tiny way to more employment?

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