Technology and tax changes, both bad and good, may be affecting our charitable donations.
The Salvation Army Red Kettle drive has fallen to a four-year low in Bloomington-Normal. It's hard to raise money from people throwing coins in a kettle when your donors are shopping from their living rooms.
And now comes word that new federal tax law changes also may have an effect because people will receive higher personal deductions and find their charitable giving may not be high enough to warrant itemizing their tax returns.
Both are whispers of a chilling effect that charitable boards are hearing all too loudly.
There's no good way to determine why, how or when charitable giving will change year to year. Unfortunately for groups that depend on donations, that pendulum swings both ways.
Sometimes technology steers donors elsewhere, sometimes donors are "fatigued" by giving amid a disaster season, sometimes the economy forces families to make hard choices. Other times, the drop in giving is related to how an agency is perceived or how it does its work. Why give to a group, for instance, that spends the bulk of its donations on staff salaries and parties?
Steve Taylor, a senior vice president and public policy council at the national office of United Way, told The Associated Press that 7.2 million people donate less than $1,000 yearly — on average $154 — to the United Way. "We're very concerned," he said. "A lot of charities are in shock. Charities feel totally blindsided and like we have been thrown under the bus" in the tax overhaul.
AP said experts say the same thing occurred in late 1986 — donations surged that year, dropped the next — after enactment of the Reagan tax overhaul, the biggest reworking of the U.S. tax system until this one.
The same story quotes a philanthropy professor at Indiana University, who said he sees charitable donations dropping 5 percent next year.
So what can we do to help?
Agencies need to make sure they are good stewards of their money and the clients who are entrusted to them. They also may need to rethink their structure: Is a mail-in campaign still the best option? Do we need a contest? Do we rebrand? Should we cut programs or join forces with a similar agency?
Donors must realize their gifts are not just deductions, but a quantifiable way of helping the less fortunate. Write a check, throw in a coin, give online, buy a case of soap or volunteer to help. Numbers rarely dwindle for those who benefit from the good work of agencies or charitable groups.
Beyond that, agency leaders and our legislators should work together to make sure tax laws are fair to all, but also do not unduly burdensome to secondary recipients.
We have entered a new world of philanthropy, but recipients shouldn't bear the brunt of the change.