DENVER — Americans love to congratulate each other about their generous giving to charity and about how much they volunteer their time to every cause from the Little League to manning soup kitchens.
Toss in a grain of salt before you swallow all claims at face value. In 1985 we did contribute, as individuals, $66 billion, plus untold millions of volunteer hours. Yet all but $12.5 billion of the cash went to our churches, and it's anyone guess how much of an ecclesiastical budget is targeted to the needy.
For our actual priorities, check out what we spent on alcohol ($53 billion), cigarettes and other tobacco ($31 billion), lotteries ($12 billion), deodorants ($1 billion) and pizza ($8 billion).
Could we do more for charity? Obviously. There's not an American metropolis that doesn't have within it sufficient resources, from private wealth to corporate coffers to untapped skills of its talented citizens, to address every problem on its doorstep. Homelessness, hunger, domestic abuse, lack of recreation for young children, deficits in the fine arts--none need be considered hopeless obstacles.
So consider the possibility: What if an American city, or a whole metropolitan area, pledged itself to tackle every problem not through increased government services but through radical expansion of giving by individuals and corporations alike? And what if it took on a concurrent goal: to mobilize thousands more people to volunteer several hours of their time each week?
That is precisely what the Denver metropolitan area, as a "first" in the nation, is undertaking to do this spring. The godmother of the program, called Metropolitan Denver GIVES, is Fern Portnoy, chief staff member of Denver's innovative Piton Foundation. Portnoy is also a vice chairwoman of the Washington-based Independent Sector. It has launched an ambitious campaign to double the nation's charitable giving and to increase personal volunteering by 50% by 1991.
In the nine months since the first strategy meetings, Denver GIVES has shifted from one woman's dream to a broad coalition effort that includes the Denver Post, the United Bank of Denver, AT&T, Gannett Outdoor Advertising, local broadcasters and marketing firms. But it takes only two minutes of chatting with Portnoy to see that she believes that the campaign might have a stunning payoff not just for the Denver area but for U.S. philanthropy as well.
Denver GIVES went public in March with a special supplement in the Denver Post boosting the campaign and providing profiles of several of Denver's most illustrious volunteers. The newspaper also reported a survey of Denver area residents that shows how the region stacks up, in both giving and volunteering, against a 1985 national sampling by the Gallup Poll for Independent Sector.
Residents of the six-county Denver area, it turns out, give in lesser numbers than the national average; 80% gave to charity last year, compared with 91% nationally.
But Denverites tend to give more money. And 60% volunteer a portion of their time, compared with 48% nationally. The results aren't surprising for a region with many mobile young professionals. Like many young people, they're not big cash givers but often can be drawn into volunteer activities.
The poll will provide a benchmark--a comparison point to see how well in future years Denver GIVES is working, and where more improvements are needed.
Later this month a conference of Denver charities and businesses will set giving and volunteering goals for the region, and will plan the campaign's longer-term future. The conference might well set goals parallel to Independent Sector, to make more Americans "models of a caring society" by persuading them to become "fivers"--people who give 5% or more of their income and/or five or more hours of their time each week.
Denver's next step will be a major regional marketing and public-relations campaign, with all talent and time volunteered by local organizations. Gannett Foundation president Eugene Dorsey, chairman of Independent Sector's "caring society" campaign, predicts that Denver GIVES will be a model for efforts well along in planning for Cleveland, Baltimore, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Rochester, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Wyoming.
Will all this work? Will people be motivated to give and volunteer more? There may be limited interest in an amorphous appeal to give for the sake of giving, to volunteer for the sake of volunteering, without saying for what. Today's cynical public--especially the Yuppie generation, a chief target of the effort--is not likely to react without a marketing campaign that first dramatizes the alarming levels of unmet need among the region's population and illustrates how vital are the arts and specialized education. And it must show persuasively how local charities, through cash and volunteer time, are able to have a critical effect.
Will the new regional giving campaigns go beyond a boost for cash gifts and volunteering to invent a new marketplace of ideas and innovations for charitable action? In cities where it's needed, they might stimulate a full citizen-based assessment of all giving needs of the area.
Potentially the new campaigns might make the charities, indeed the constellation of nonprofits in their areas, more responsive and more effective. The bottom line shouldn't be the welfare of the charities. It ought be to make an entire metropolitan area "work" for every class, as it rarely does today.