- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It’s as American as Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie: giving to charities. It’s what we do as Americans. It makes us feel good, particularly during the holidays.

Some even claim it’s crucial for our good health.

“The most important reason to give is that it’s central to personal physical, emotional and mental health,” says Steve McSwain, author of “The Giving Myths: Giving and Then Getting the Life You’ve Always Wanted.” (Proceeds from the book go to www.modestneeds.org, a nonprofit focused on helping poor families in the United States.)

The good news is we continue to give even as our economy continues its downward spiral. A recent survey by Harris Interactive and World Vision (a Christian humanitarian group that aims to help families in poverty worldwide) shows that Americans - while intending to spend less on commercial gifts - want charitable gifts this year.

“Giving is a cultural value, a societal norm for us as Americans,” says Justin Greeves of Harris Interactive, a research and polling company. “The emotion it taps into is: ‘I can give something that will make a difference in someone’s life.’”

Mr. Greeves says he thinks there will be a slight increase in charitable giving this year because when there is greater need there also is greater awareness. (Americans give more than $300 billion to charities every year.)

A recent report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University echoes the findings, saying that a look at the past four decades shows that American households continue to give even when the economy is suffering. The period studied included good times and bad — for example, Black Monday in 1987, when the Dow lost more than 22 percent in one day.

In the past, however, households have given about 1 percent less during those bad times, according to the report. The drop in giving is most significant among households making $50,000 or less.

World Vision is not seeing a slump, however. Instead, the group has seen an increase in giving this year.

“My jaw is dropping because people are out of work and they’re still giving,” says World Vision spokesman John Yeager. “Our catalog sales are up for the year.”

Giving isn’t limited to giving money. It also can mean giving in-kind donations.

At Goodwill of Greater Washington, for example, monetary donations are down about 30 percent for the year, and projections show them continuing to slide. However, in-store sales are up, so Goodwill can use more items to sell.

“We hope to offset the decrease in monetary donations with an increase in in-store sales,” says Brendan Hurley, vice president for marketing and communications at Goodwill.

Another way to give is by volunteering, and at Greater DC Cares, a nonprofit group that coordinates volunteering and corporate community investing, this is where growth is seen this year.

“I think people — particularly after the election — feel like they can make a difference,” says Madye Henson, president and chief executive office of Greater DC Cares.

Giving also can mean giving a soothing smile or encouraging word to someone in distress or under pressure, such as an overworked cashier or screamed-at airline employee. Everyone — no matter what income level — can afford this kind of giving, Mr. McSwain says.

But how does all this relate to our own health?

“Giving to others helps get the attention off ourselves,” Mr. McSwain says, “and an extreme self-centeredness or self-concern — particularly at a time like this — is counterproductive and unhealthy. It just creates stress.”

Conversely, if you pay attention to the needs of others, your own stress will bounce off you like raindrops on a new umbrella.

“You just can’t be stingy and healthy for long,” Mr. McSwain says.