2005 was certainly a challenging year for philanthropy, but then they all are. We had three major catastrophic events – two abroad and one in our own South – that touched people and resulted in some major outpouring of gifts to help hundreds of thousands of people in distress. People of all ages responded warmly, creatively and generously by sharing their bounty with those whose lives have been totally turned upside down.
What about Whatcom County? What is going on here? It is too soon to tell this close to the end of 2005 whether our local nonprofit sector reached its projected goals for the year. However, my conversations with some local nonprofit directors generally elicited the comment that their annual year-end campaigns were not doing as well as in 2004. While this information is purely anecdotal, it makes sense that the disaster-related giving this year and the rise in local poverty figures would create a shortfall.
Whatcom nonprofits have increased in numbers, in response to growing and newly identified needs we have here. The attention nonprofits pay to their governance and marketing has also increased markedly, because they must do so in order to keep up with the following: increased need for their services, increased competition for limited charitable dollars and a greater need to leverage the human resources board members bring to their work.
Local nonprofits also are becoming more sophisticated in fundraising and development, and the broader opportunities for involvement created are good for our entire community. Effective fund raising, however, must be backed up by a well-run organization with clear goals and a vision of where it is going. The best nonprofits welcome your scrutiny.
Potential donors are asking harder questions about how their gifts will be used, because there are many alternative places that their limited charitable dollars could go. We are all getting smarter about philanthropy as it becomes an increasing part of life in Whatcom County. The more we all know, the more likely we will give to nonprofit organizations doing the good work that makes this place special and will keep it that way.
One example of the increased role of philanthropy in Whatcom County is the number of capital campaigns that are in progress right now. A simple listing of some will give you an idea of the value these nonprofit organizations bring to our lives. RE Sources is raising money for a new home for the RE Store and for other sustainable environmental activities in which RE Sources engages. The Whatcom Humane Society is building a new shelter and education center near Ferndale that will allow much more community involvement, particularly for children. The Bellingham Food Bank is raising money for a new building to continue its important work as the need for food increases in low-income families.
Our cultural life also depends upon the generosity of local donors. The Whatcom Film Association is building a new twin-screen home for its Pickford Cinema right next the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. Finally, the downtown Cultural District is raising private dollars to build a new museum for children and adults and for other enhancements to the Mount Baker Theatre. All of these things together help make for a vibrant community, so please respond positively to any of them who might contact you. Such investments in your community will repay you and your neighbors many times over.
Surely you didn’t think, did you, that you would get away without some suggestions from me about how to enhance our philanthropy as a community in the New Year?
The amount and quality of our philanthropy improve each year, and we need to maintain this upswing to meet new and continuing challenges. My New Year’s hopes for the community are three. My first hope is that we all spread throughout the entire year both our awareness of needs in our community and our thoughtful responses to them.
Taking some of the pressure off December will ease your holiday stress and make the nonprofits you support breathe a bit more easily throughout the year. The work goes on year-round, yet too much now depends upon the annual year-end mailing.
You can spread your philanthropy throughout the year by doing some volunteering, serving on a board or donating your expertise to a nonprofit you like. The last one can be especially helpful when the expertise is in financial management or marketing, something all successful businesses do well and all nonprofits need to do better.
My second hope for improved philanthropy in Whatcom County is finally to give the Whatcom Council of Nonprofits (www.wcnwebsite.org) the life it deserves by having some paid staff. This community resource with minimal staffing would improve the quality of work done by over 100 nonprofits as nothing else could. It is the classic sustainable approach of teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish, and it would greatly increase donor confidence in the work of local nonprofits.
Finally, I hope that 2006 is the year that we finally begin in some formal way to tackle the important task of teaching philanthropy in our schools. There are many good examples of curriculum units and proven projects from other communities that could easily be adapted for our children. Portland’s youth philanthropy project, for example, was supported by a major business. Philanthropy and volunteerism have been at the core of the American experience since the beginning, but we could do much better by teaching our children the joys of community involvement as an important investment in their future.
We are on the verge of making philanthropic history for Whatcom County as an essential part of grappling responsibly with our growth and what we want this area to be well into the future. It will require in 2006 and well beyond that we pay attention all year to those things that add quality to our lives together and will get done only through the generosity of many people who care.
Don Drake has spent 20 years working in executive roles in philanthropy. He served as president of Whatcom Community Foundation from 1997 until September 2005.