The State of Local Giving

So far, so good, though nothing is certain. So be charitable.


Rosemary Wiley at Alameda Meals on Wheels.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

(page 1 of 2)

Maureen Sirhall and her husband have been contributing to the Alameda County Community Food Bank for 27 years, and she has been volunteering there since she retired from her job as a director of risk management at a West Coast law firm.

When calls went out nationally for assistance for hurricanes and floods, the Sirhalls stepped up, contributing to Houston-area food banks following Hurricane Harvey. “We will respond to worldwide events,” Sirhall said.

When appeals were issued for donations to aid Northern California fire victims, the Sirhalls kept giving, donating to the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Charitable responses to disasters are often immediate, with about $350 million rolling in for victims of Hurricane Harvey and millions of more dollars for relief coming in following Hurricane Irma. Closer to home, the Redwood Credit Union Community Fund had raised $5.7 million by mid-October for Wine Country and Northern California fire assistance, while Oaklanders and Alamedans drove north in cars loaded with toilet paper, socks, and shampoo.

Such demands might cause one to wonder whether local charitable giving fluctuates in response. On top of that, add the recent phenomenon of so-called rage giving: In an apparent backlash to President Trump’s election and his stances against women’s rights and civil liberties, some national nonprofits—Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union in particular—have seen their coffers grow considerably.

So just how are local charities making out?

“People expand their hearts and wallets a little further,” said Shoshana Grammer, a senior consultant at Campbell & Company, a company that acts as a consultant on fundraising for nonprofits.

A recent survey of more than a dozen East Bay nonprofits found them holding their own by maintaining or exceeding donation levels from fiscal years 2015 to 2016 (usually June-to-June), in part because the local economy seems to be humming along nicely, fire disasters notwithstanding.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s How America Gives report released in October identified a worrisome national trend, however: The percentage of Americans who donate to philanthropic organizations dropped from 31 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2015, the latest year for which IRS data was available. That trend held true for Alameda County, where, while the average gift was $4,136, the ratio of donations to income was almost 30 percent smaller than that of the state overall, the report said.

Many factors that affect giving don’t show up immediately, because institutional donors such as foundations often commit contributions in multiyear cycles, minimizing the impacts of a recession or boom, which tend to be felt years later, said Cindy Sandoval, development director for Children’s Fairyland. Moreover, she added, it takes time for private foundations to catch up with what’s happening in the economy and society.

“I had feared that the emphasis on political resistance and rapid-response giving might have an impact. But in terms of individual giving, we were OK this year,” Sandoval said.

That could change, of course.

“We are very much dependent on and feel the effects of the political environment locally and nationally,” said Kym Johnson Luqman, executive director of BANANAS, an East Bay nonprofit resource and referral agency for parents of children age 5 and younger.

And, while the local economy is strong, a downturn “very well could affect us if thing got worse throughout America,” said Kari Barnes, a resource development specialist for the Alameda Boys & Girls Club.

Mark Streshinsky, the general director of West Edge Opera, recalled that a potential donor had backed off making a contribution to the organization in favor of taking on the Trump administration with charitable financial support elsewhere. “Definitely, a few are thinking about where their money should go, and it’s important to do that,” he said.

In addition to the dozen organizations interviewed for this article, the East Bay is home to many worthwhile nonprofit organizations and charities whose causes can benefit from the spirit of giving that prevails at this time of year.  While refreshing to report stable and improving conditions for the dozen nonprofits surveyed for this report, they can always use additional help and, like many of their counterparts, have developed interesting techniques to survive and thrive.

To maintain their financial health, some local nonprofit leaders said they become proactive. Streshinsky, for instance, said he diligently devotes energy to identifying new donors while deftly maintaining relationships with existing donors whose support, in many cases, has lasted years. Reminding current donors what they’ve accomplished with their money while courting new supporters is a constant struggle, he said.

“The real bread and butter in any nonprofit portfolio has to be individuals, families, and donor-advised funds,” said Sandoval. “It’s easier to write a grant than build relationships with individuals, but that’s where true philanthropy comes from.”

Some nonprofits have begun to link their activities to the goals of donors. Andrea Haas Bell, director of development for The Crucible, noted that the industrial fire-arts organization has aligned some of its programs to dovetail with supporters’ interest in environmental protection, social justice, and human services.

Another strategy nonprofits have used to stabilize or bolster giving is helping donors respond to national events such as disasters by creating opportunities at home. Applying lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, Berkeley Humane, the Oakland SPCA, and Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation airlifted dogs and cats from Orlando shelters ahead of Hurricane Irma at great cost, making space there for the animals that would be displaced. Berkeley Humane issued a special fundraising request, complete with photos of the rescued animals. Said Tom Altherr, director of development and communications, “We had a spectacular response,” quadruple the regular monthly fundraising goal. Allison Lindquist, president and CEO of East Bay SPCA, pointed out that the strategy allowed money to remain in the community, where it has a multiplier effect by keeping the economy healthier.

Showing donors the tangible effects of their contributions turns out to be an effective tool for local nonprofits in the giving game.

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