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Sunday, November 08, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: `HERE'S MONEY FOR X, BUT NOT FOR Y'

According to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the largest charitable organizations in the country are expecting their greatest drop in donations in the 17 years the journal has been collecting such data.

The expected drop for 2009 is 9 percent, after an uptick in contributions in 2008 of 1 percent, which itself was down from the 5-to-6-percent donation increases that these organizations had been experiencing for years. The latest data from Canada, collected in 2007, suggests that the Canadian rate of charitable giving was already flat even before the economy took its turn for the worse.

Not great news for organizations already pressed to continue to fulfill their charitable missions as funding gets scarcer.

It's reasonable to assume that donors, finding their own dollars stretched thinner, are looking longer and harder at the organizations to which they contribute. Issues of effective use of contributions come into play. Is an organization using too much of its money for overhead and not enough for the cause it was set up to champion? Is money going to efforts other than its primary mission? It's easier to check on such things nowadays with the help of Web sites such as www.charitynavigator.com, which evaluate how charities use their funds.

How much control, however, should you expect to have over your contribution once you give it to a charitable organization?

Sure, the money should never be used for a purpose that strays from the charity's stated mission. But what if only some parts of that mission are to your liking?

That's what's bothering a reader in Columbus, Ohio.

"Recently," she writes, "I found out that a charity I contribute to, which advertises itself as fighting a disease, gives some of the donations it receives to an organization which I do not want to support."

She e-mailed the organization to raise her concerns, but never received any response.

"If on future donations I include a request that any donations from me be used for the disease the group fights but not be donated to the other organization," she asks, "would the charity be obligated to honor my request?"

It's not unreasonable to hope that a charitable organization would take the time to respond to the concerns of its donors and indeed to honor any special requests that they may have. It's reasonable, but it's not mandatory.

A contribution made to the general funds of an organization can be spent as that organization sees fit. So long as that charity responsibly uses the money to champion its stated cause - rather than, say, funding terrorism or lavish lifestyles for its executives - it cannot be expected to wall off various parts of its activities because individual donors might favor one activity but not another. Given that different people have different likings, it could create an organizational and logistical nightmare.

This is a problem which has long vexed the federal government and, though individual taxpayers may ask that their money not be used to finance, say, wars or social programs with which they disagree, in reality all the money goes into one pot from which all federal programs are funded. Colleges face the same problem and often allow dedicated giving, especially to large donors.

In the case of charities, prospective donors are certainly within their rights to ask questions about how their money will be used, and the right thing for the charity to do is to respond to these queries - if not out of ethical concerns, at least because a donor who feels ignored is less likely to give again. My reader ought to have gotten a response to her e-mail, even if the answer wasn't what she wanted to hear.

The charity didn't ask me for advice, though, and my reader did.

The right thing for her to do is to donate her money to charitable organizations that do not spend money on things she finds distasteful. Rather than try to change the mission or practices of an organization that uses its funds in a way that she doesn't like, my reader would be better off investing her time and her funds in a charity that does.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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