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Giving Back? Philanthropy in These Tough Times

Giving Back? Philanthropy in These Tough Times 

The notion of “giving back to your community” has become a central component in the mission statements of many companies. Some people believe businesses actually have the public’s best interest in mind, while others suspect corporate philanthropy is simply a marketing ploy. A 1997 New York Times article featured Frank Castagna, a builder and developer of hospitals, libraries, university buildings, homes, and shopping centers in Long Island, who observed, “’Generally, we work on the basis that we’re part of a community,’ Mr. Castagna said. ‘If the community benefits, then we benefit. What’s best for the community is what’s best for ourselves and our family.’” Times have changed however, and the recession calls on small businesses and national companies to reevaluate their definitions of philanthropy.

Steven Pearlstein, the Washington Post’s business columnist, discusses the struggle for nonprofit organizations during this economic crisis: “…the real test of community spirit comes at times like these, when economies begin to soften and individuals and companies have to make tough choices about how to allocate their attention and their money. The challenge is particularly acute for smaller, less-well-known nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to those most in need but don’t have large fundraising staffs or the reputations and social cache of larger cultural and educational institutions.”

But have businesses also learned something about responsible giving from the Wall Street crash? Katha Pollitt at The Nation breaks down what the recession has taught us on how constructive the current donating design has been in the first place. “Still, the global economic crisis is showing how wishful was the notion that large-scale amelioration of drastic conditions–poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality–could be achieved by freewill offerings from well-intentioned individuals, even if those individuals happened to be billionaires. Like consumer capitalism, which relies on more and more people buying more and more things, philanthropy is an unsustainable model. Even in flush times of humongous returns on investments and much exuberant throwing about of cash, it could never do the jobs asked of it. In a downturn, nonprofits suffer along with the rest of the economy. Easy come, easy go.”

An important part of the conversation is the duty of the community to support their local businesses. Some find it increasingly difficult to buy local when it usually means purchasing more expensive goods. Local businesses and community members often have a symbiotic relationship and balancing how much support is required becomes harder to cap when everyone is suffering financially.

How much responsibility does a business have to “give back” to its community in a time of economic hardship? What are the most productive ways for businesses to support their local communities? How much responsibility do communities have to support their local businesses? What kind of a relationship would you like companies and the public to have in your neighborhood? What does this economic crisis mean for philanthropy? What does philanthropy mean to you?

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