Nancy Vaughan column: The opportunity to reboot Mr. Dickens’ great invention
By Nancy Vaughan | For The Herald Bulletin Dec 24, 2017
I enjoyed the film “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” the story of how Charles Dickens came to write the timeless tale of the salvation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Since the book became an instant success in 1843, the holiday season has been synonymous with peace on earth, goodwill toward men, with giving to charitable causes a key component.
Unfortunately, several recent studies confirm what many of us in the world of philanthropy have been noticing: Americans are becoming less charitable. Conclusions from studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Texas A & M University economists, University of Notre Dame sociologists, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and YMCA’s national community survey all describe a culture that is less giving of both money and time.
Generally, all the findings highlight these trends: Fewer people are giving, despite the economic recovery, and the decline is evident across the economic spectrum.
United Way trends are a reflection of these findings. Across Indiana, United Way giving fell from 2008 to 2010, rebounded from 2011 to 2014, and has declined since then to below pre-recession levels. Nationally, 30 percent of taxpayers reported a charitable gift from 2000 to 2006; in 2015, just 24 percent reported a charitable gift.
There are numerous theories to explain the trend:
• Continued economic uncertainty and memory of the recession
• Hollowing out of the middle class, resulting in less discretionary income
• Failure of millennials to embrace traditional ways of giving
• Charities focusing on high-income donor recognition and engagement, while neglecting small-dollar donors
• Growing cynicism across our culture
Certainly, the recession has had lasting impact. Even with full employment, many households have experienced declined or stagnant incomes. The continuing income disparity between the highest income households and everyone else has caused more and more charities to target fewer households, while changes in the workplace structures have created fewer opportunities to reach out to large groups of more moderate donors.
Millennials likely have no experience with the more traditional charitable endeavors and the vast array of competing interests across social media may result in some gifting, but likely little long-term engagement.
Moreover, we constantly hear about how bad things are, leading to the feeling that our gifts have no impact. Finally, once we drop the habit of giving, adding charitable contributions back into the budget can be challenging.
Despite these ghosts of the past and present, as Dickens told us, the future is not pre-determined. We all have something to give. Every gift matters. Historically, lower income households have given a greater percentage of income to charitable causes. These households, in fact, increased giving during the last recession while higher income households decreased their percentage of giving.
Gifts do have impact on someone despite the fact that there will always be others in need. And as United Way — whose business is mankind — has always reminded us: we can do much more together than any one of us can do alone.
The holiday season is also a time of thanks and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the thousands of people in our community who make it their business to give. Dickens said it best: "and so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every one!"