- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

Even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there were clear signs the economy was slowing. Stock prices were dropping and key financial indicators pointed to a cooling of the sustained prosperity we had enjoyed. That disquieting trend was exacerbated in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and would have destroyed yet another target but for the heroism of passengers who brought down one of the planes in Pennsylvania.

Jobs have been lost, whole industries threatened, businesses closed and our nation is adjusting in human and economic terms to unprecedented circumstances. Yet, without doubt, the terrorist attacks have forged a patriotic mood not seen in recent years. Striking the deepest core of the human condition, the horrific events unleashed an overwhelming outpouring of charitable support. An estimated $1 billion has been raised to address the human suffering wrought by the attacks.

Certainly, the generosity and compassion of Americans to this cause is more than praiseworthy and demonstrates the people of this nation truly stand for the principles and tenets we espouse. But what about the other victims in our nation, those who have fallen prey to poverty, homelessness, abuse, addiction and undereducation conditions they endured long before Sept. 11? Now they are at risk of losing much of the support offered them because of the vile acts committed by terrorists and the resulting redirection of charitable efforts.

Area nonprofit organizations that address the vast needs of victims of social ills rely heavily on the financial support of private individuals, as well as corporate and foundation funding. The confluence of a slowing economy and so many laudable humanitarian deeds targeted at relief efforts has such charities reeling. An alarmingly large number have experienced a precipitous downturn in giving, resulting in layoffs, hiring freezes and a reduction in spending capacity. The upshot is services are being curtailed by many charitable organizations that are bailing water just to keep their desperately needed services afloat.

To make matters worse, we are approaching the time of year when charities raise the lion's share of their support. Some charities generate 30 percent to 50 percent of their annual support in November and December, when the holidays traditionally stimulate an even warmer giving spirit. So, if things fail to turn around quickly, it will be the death knell for some charities while many others will be severely incapacitated.

A concerted effort is needed now to head off the looming calamity. Much of the problem can be abated if those who give to relief efforts can find a way to reach a little deeper so that, as they properly and appropriately donate to Sept. 11 relief funds, it is not at the sacrifice of other needed charitable efforts. In essence, support the relief work but do not reduce other giving to do so.

Umbrella groups, like the Washington Council of Agencies and the new Non-profit Roundtable, which represent many non-profits, should quickly assess the damage on area non-profits, making the results available to policy-makers, corporate and foundation funders, and the general public, so the impact is known more precisely.

Mayor Anthony Williams should use the visibility of his office to widely proclaim the importance of the charitable community in providing services to needy residents. The mayor should pen an open letter and use his radio address, town hall meetings and many other public appearances to highlight the plight of charities and underscore the importance of continuing support. Moreover, the mayor should review his $736 million request to the Bush administration and either amend it to include relief for hard-hit charities or ensure that non-profits are eligible for support like other business sectors already in the package.

The D.C. Council should convene a hearing on the current plight of non-profits since there is a clear public interest in the vitality of services provided by charities. Many non-profits have grants or contracts from the city to provide health, social and educational programs. But virtually every one supplements them with privately generated funds that make more services available to needy people while keeping government costs down.

And finally, community members should rally together on Saturday, Nov. 17 in a poignant show of unity by participating in the annual Help-the-Homeless Walk-a-Thon sponsored by Fannie Mae. More than 200 regional non-profits benefit from funds raised. This year, more than ever, participation in the Walk-a-Thon is needed to ensure that shelters and pantries can provide for those less fortunate. And, it signals that our charitable spirit is alive and well.

The next two months are crucial for non-profits. Let's use them to send a resounding message that, no matter what, we have a compassionate heart for those whose suffering predated Sept. 11 and continues today.

Vince Gray is executive director of Covenant House Washington and a former director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.

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