Charity drive needs to be more than talk


October 21, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

By now the statistics are familiar: Central Marylanders give far less per capita to charitable causes than most Americans, 1.5 percent vs. 2.5 percent.

That may not sound like a big difference, but consider this: If Marylanders gave at the national average, it would generate some $275 million new dollars for charitable organizations in Central Maryland.

So, how do concerned citizens get fellow Marylanders to ante up? They form a well-heeled group of knowledgeable people from the non-profit community, along with some prominent philanthropists and call themselves Partners for Giving (actually, Partners for Giving: The Central Maryland Coalition for Philanthropy).

After commissioning a study of Marylanders' giving habits, Partners designed a public awareness campaign known as Strive for Five. Boiled down to its essence, Strive for Five asks every Central Marylander to donate 5 percent of their income and give five hours of time each week for charitable work.

"What we're really trying to do here," says Partners for Giving Executive Director Andrea F. Krupp, "is raise people's awareness of the need to give time and money and to set a standard for that giving."

Krupp is a respected name in fund-raising in Central Maryland and, by all accounts, has done an exceptional job in uniting the various constituents of Partners and launching the Strive for Five campaign.

At a news conference to launch Strive for Five, I caught a glimpse of what is planned for the media campaign. Short spots will appear on local television. Ads will appear in The Sun. Billboards will broadcast the Strive for Five message. There will even be a published honor list of prominent Marylanders who have pledged to "give five."

Yet, with all the hoopla involved in launching that campaign, there is something missing that troubles me.

I am a great believer in giving five. (Actually, I believe in tithing, but not many people can afford to do that in today's world.) To that end, Strive for Five's major contribution will be to let people know there is a giving standard to attain and surpass. Up to now, Marylanders have struggled with what that right amount of giving should be. Now, with Strive for Five, they have a standard. We may not always meet that standard, but we darn well know what it is now.

The troubling issue to me is that media campaigns by themselves have never been terribly effective in changing people's behavior.

The entire field of social marketing, advanced by such notable experts as Philip Kotler, says that to effect large-scale change in people's behavior, one must go well beyond media messages. One must deal with the social norms that act to influence them and the grass roots, nitty-gritty issues that trigger or hinder people's behaviors.

And, that is where we all come in.

Left to its own devices, Strive for Five will have been a well-meaning, but inadequate effort to advance our social responsibility. Once the campaign is under way, we must all look at ways we can strive for five or six or even 10. For example, we must address the issue of corporations giving to charitable causes, while their well-paid executives give far below potential -- in some cases less than 1.5 percent of income -- by using their business' donation as a cover.

One of the most disturbing changes on our economic scene is the abysmal rate of savings of American families. If we can't even save for our own needs, how can we budget enough to give to charity?

This is not a simple question, but we can't afford to ignore it. We must address this issue, teaching people strategies and methods to incorporate charity into their daily lives.

What are we doing to help young people do charitable works? How do you get children to give 5 percent, when a pair of basketball sneakers costs $150 and nine out of 10 kids who wear them have never been on a basketball court? Is forced volunteerism, as proposed by the State Board of Education, the answer? Shouldn't we be looking more thoughtfully at the issue from a solid planning and marketing viewpoint, interviewing children and teens, surveying the norms that influence them and designing approaches that may be more effective?

Acknowledging the need to go further, Krupp offered this in a recent interview: "We're exploring a program in which historical givers will be "mentored" with up and coming executives and philanthropists. We're also looking at ways to provide technical assistance to non-profits to help them change the nature of fund-raising to enable them to move to a new level."

Such changes would involve ways to use volunteers more effectively and to help people give to favorite charities at higher levels. Certainly, there is a need for further work.

Unfortunately, such changes will not come easily. Partners for Giving needs to continue its work and plan for ways to extend their exciting efforts beyond Strive for Five.

If the attempt to boost giving begins and ends with an awareness effort, Strive for Five is in danger of turning into Jive for Five.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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