- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The September 11 terror attacks were a traumatic event that galvanized the American public to do what they already do best in the world — give generously of their time and money, says the new head of a Washington-based coalition of charitable organizations.

But even as emergency services, government, media and numerous public and private agencies sprang into action, a part of the nonprofit world was caught off guard, says Diana Aviv who took over as president of Independent Sector this summer.

September 11 was “one of the greatest ‘missed opportunities,’” she says.

The American public wanted to do something — anything — from giving money to delivering homemade sandwiches to rescue workers, she says. However, many nonprofits and charitable groups weren’t prepared to make these kind of connections — “they didn’t realize this was a crossroads, a seminal moment in history that called for transformative thinking and action. It wasn’t business as usual anymore.

“My question to people now is, ‘Has that moment gone or is there still opportunity to do it, to make connections in the community?’” she says. In her view, what is needed are clear frameworks to allow nonprofits to respond powerfully and efficiently in times of massive crisis.

“We know it’s going to happen. How do we prepare for it in advance?” she says.

Miss Aviv’s observations come at a time when the nonprofit world is still recovering from public reprimands about its handling of September 11 donations, which eventually totaled more than $2.2 billion.

As of early this year, 74 percent of September 11 contributions have been paid out, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of metropolitan New York City reported last month.

Four charities — the Salvation Army, Safe Horizon, the New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund and New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund — have paid out 95 percent of their donations, according to the BBS.

But the unprecedented outpouring of donations revealed many weaknesses in charitable groups’ handling of the money, the BBB report said.

For instance, charities struggled to identify, locate and serve victims quickly, the report said. There was also a breakdown in communication with the public about how their contributions would be used.

The American Red Cross, for instance, initially indicated that it planned to use some of its September 11 donations for purposes unrelated to the tragedy, as it typically did with disaster-relief funds. After a public outcry and congressional inquiries, Red Cross leaders clarified that all of its 9/11 funds would go for 9/11-related services.

The Ford Foundation, which also released a report last month on September 11 donations, recommended that major cities “draw up coordinated contingency plans” to assemble one-stop service centers and coordinate public and private services in the event of a disaster.

Miss Aviv is eager for Independent Sector, which represents around 700 nonprofits, foundations and charitable organizations, to convene conferences and assist with such plans.

She is also interested in educating a new generation of Americans about the benefits of charitable gift-giving and volunteerism.

Family volunteering, for instance, is showing a trend upward, she says.

Volunteering as a family benefits not only the recipients, but gives the family an experience “they can share together that is not about themselves but about somebody else.”

A more daunting task will be to engage the next generation of Americans in charitable work, says Miss Aviv, who has worked with United Jewish Communities’ Washington Action Office, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, National Council of Jewish Women and Alternatives to Domestic Violence before her Independent Sector position.

In 1997, the privately funded National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, led by Lamar Alexander, now one of Tennessee’s two Republican senators, concluded that America is about to undergo “the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in our history.”

This transfer refers to members of the “silent generation,” who saved and scrimped through the Great Depression and World War II, passing sizable inheritances to their baby-boomer children.

What will the baby boomers do with their inheritances? “That’s the $64 million question. Or maybe $64 billion,” laughs Miss Aviv.

Seriously, she says, there are many, many questions about baby-boomer philanthropy. Baby boomers are more mobile and global than their parents. This may be a boon to international causes, but will they also feel a commitment to their local communities — their symphonies, libraries, parks and social services? Baby boomers have grown up with Great Society welfare programs. Will they therefore conclude that taking care of the poor is the government’s job?

Despite all these questions, Miss Aviv adds, nonprofits know at least two truisms about giving: “People want to make sure their dollars make a difference” and “In the end, people give to things that matter to them personally.”

Independent Sector’s signature reports include its surveys on volunteering and charitable giving.

Its most recent report, “Giving and Volunteering in the United States: 2001,” found that 83.9 million adults or 44 percent of the population volunteered in the past year.

The estimated value of a volunteer hour in 2002 increased by 50 cents to $16.54 an hour.

When people were asked why they volunteered, almost 80 percent said it was because they believed that “those who have more should give to those who have less.” Other frequent reasons were a desire to give back to the community (58.3 percent), being personally asked to help (55.9 percent) and to fulfill religious obligations (52.4 percent).

New data from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University shows that Americans’ charitable giving remains strong, despite the recession.

Total charitable giving in 2002 was $240.92 billion, “an historic level, lifted by growth in giving from corporations and estates,” the center said this summer in its “Giving USA” report. This compares with more than $238 billion donated in 2001.

“Given the economic difficulties and other uncertainties of 2002, growth in giving is proof of our nation’s philanthropic resilience,” said Leo P. Arnoult, chairman of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy, which is associated with the center and released the report.

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