Photo by Al Clayton
After you’ve measured the size and impact of charitable giving, you can report on how it contributes to solving particular community problems.
Choose a community need that is significant for low-income people – educational opportunity, health care, or housing. Then follow these steps to do a story about what your community does to help address this need, and what role is played by charitable giving.
Describe the size of the need: Look at Census data to see the percentage of people in your community without health insurance, or with education less than a high school diploma. Compare to 10 years ago – has the proportion increased or decreased.
Ask government agencies and statewide associations about how they measure the problem, and how that has changed over time. How many are served, and how much of a shortfall do they estimate there is, between government services and the population in need? This is a way of measuring the gap that must be filled by nonprofits and charitable giving.
Compare needs to resources: Develop a list of public charities in your area that provide services for this need. You may be able to start from the total list of nonprofits for your market area, and filter by name and category. So for example, if you are looking at educational opportunity for low-income adults, eliminate from your list private schools, youth homes, and associations of educators.
Have any nonprofits in this category closed their doors for lack of funds in recent years?
Review the income of these charities. Compare the income of these nonprofits to the income for nonprofits overall. What is the total income of the public charities serving this need? What percentage is that of the total revenue for nonprofits in your area?
Look at the 990 forms for these organizations for the past three to five years. Has their income increased or decreased? What portion of their income is from government grants, and how much from private donations? Have staff numbers decreased? Are they spending more on fundraising now?
How does that affect the number of people served? Have they eliminated any services or programs?
Don’t neglect religious congregations, which often have human service projects in the community but are not required to file 990s. [As of 2010, more than a third of all private donations went to religious organizations; this has been the leading category of donation recipients nationwide for 56 consecutive years.]
Photo by Lisa Schnellinger
Gauge the impact of funding shifts: Talk to the staff at these nonprofits. How well do they feel they serve the population in need? Have they lost government grants, and if so, how did they make up for it? Do they spend more time raising money and less time providing services?
How has their program changed to fit the financial picture? Did any major donors exert influence on how the organization carries out its role in the community?
What do volunteers contribute to the effort? Does the nonprofit make any calculation of the value of volunteer time? Have volunteer hours increased or decreased?
Ask them to connect you with people in the community who have been cut from programs when the money dried up.
Talk to those who benefit from public charity programs. Do they feel their needs are being met? Does it matter to them whether the service is provided by the government or a private organization?
Try to walk in their shoes, to have a sense of what it feels like to live according to the whims of charity. Sit in the emergency room and talk to people who are there because it’s the only way to get health care when you don’t have insurance. Or interview people who are standing in a long line, waiting to talk to a counselor about student loans. Spend an evening on a chilly street corner with a guy who’s begging for coins at Christmas, as he watches people come out of shiny stores carrying big packages.
Study the motivations behind giving: Talk to philanthropists and business donors in your community.
Start by reviewing the 990-PF forms of the private foundations (which can be found through any of the nonprofit data sources). Where are they contributing money? How has that changed? Have they shifted to fill gaps left by declines in government funding, or is their recipient mix basically consistent over time?
You can talk to the board members of these foundations about how they view their role in the community. Ask how their philanthropic mission has evolved over time, and what drives it.
Find individual and business donors by scanning the lists of sponsors and supporters, usually listed on printed programs of fundraising events and organization websites. You can also look for names of wealthy individuals in the “Charitable Remainder Unitrust” listings among the nonprofits in your area. These are set up as irrevocable trusts, whereby the individual receives a percentage of the assets until their death, and the remainder is given to charity.
You can ask them how they decide among the many requests for assistance. What motivates them? How do they see the role of charitable contributions in society? In what ways does supporting the community help their business, too?
Often, personal experiences move a person to contribute in a particular sector. Have their charitable donations changed over time, based on the needs of the community?