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The Business of Giving: Charity on the Chopping Block


Small savings, enormous negative consequence.

In the nonprofit world, we are experiencing the drawbacks of trickledown economics.

Social service programs are on the chopping block – in fact, they often feel the knife before it becomes dull from overuse. Grants that once funded vital programs are no longer available. And donors who see smaller revenues and bonuses (or none at all) are contributing less.

A few thousand dollars can make a huge difference. I learned this week that a program that helps prevent teen-agers from entering into abusive relationships lost its government funding, and we'll need to significantly reduce services.

This frustrates me for many reasons. One, the program works. It teaches youth who grew up witnessing abuse what they should expect from a healthy relationship, thus helping break a dangerous cycle. Second, losing a mere $60,000 was enough to jeopardize this program. In the grand scheme of billion-dollar bailouts, it is chump change. But in this economy, finding a donor willing to give that kind of money is increasingly difficult.

The loss of one small program often reads as a footnote to a larger problem. But in actuality, losing these services sows the seeds for a costlier future. When the budget ax falls, preventive and early intervention services are often the first to be eliminated.

Now we won't be able to help keep teens out of abusive relationships, and this increases the likelihood that these girls will someday be battered, leading to increased medical costs. Abused women who leave their relationships require counseling, shelter and housing for themselves and their children. They need job assistance and food stamps until they get on their feet. And this doesn't even take into account the costs of arresting, prosecuting and jailing the abuser.

Finally, the long-term impact on children who witness domestic violence is heartbreaking – they are at greater risk of depression, academic failure, substance abuse and other risky behaviors. Prevention-focused programs are much less expensive (and far more effective) than programs required after abuse has occurred.

Think about it: $60,000 a year can prevent numerous instances of abuse and save much more than that in taxpayer money.

This example is just one of many. Small programs everywhere are in jeopardy. In Rhode Island, nearly 20,000 seniors are at risk of losing a program that helps them pay for prescription drugs. The savings? A mere $1.1 million in a $7.6 billion budget. The Sexual Abuse Nurse Examiners (SANE) Program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, which treats child molestation victims, was cut in part because donations are down. Even 100-year-old programs aren't safe: In Minnesota, thousands of children won't benefit from the leadership skills taught by their county's 4-H Program, which was eliminated to close a $130,000 budget gap.

What can be done? When government can no longer shoulder the cost-burden of society, it is up to us, individual citizens, to use our shoulders; otherwise we pay much more later. Find a program in your community at risk of closing and find out how to keep the doors open. If you can't do it alone, network with people around you to get the job done.

This isn't just good for the community; it's good for you as well. Let the local media know about your contribution. Ask to have your name affixed to the new program or facility. In this way, you create a legacy for yourself and ensure a safer and healthier future for your neighbors and your community.
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