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Sep 01st
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Digging Deep into the Old Pockets

tom_honig_sCrooner Andy Williams used to preach to us all on television that December “is the most wonderful time of the year,” so here we are. Does it feel wonderful?

To me, it’s mostly just confusing. Because December is also the time of the year that most of us are asked to dig … and dig … and dig deeper into our wallets to share with those who need help.

And that’s what’s confusing. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to figure out what charities are worth giving to. The bigger problem, at least for me, is to decide which need is worth filling—hunger, homelessness, despondency. Then there are those less dramatic needs—the arts, culture, education.

It’s hard to rank need, but that’s really what many of us are asked to do, especially in Santa Cruz and especially at this time of year.

I’ve been on several nonprofit boards, and the goal is pretty much the same—give money or get money. In fact, I’ve been on enough boards over the years that I could go broke just writing checks to the good people that I’ve worked with.

That’s the problem. How is one supposed to decide where to donate? There are a number of considerations:

Who needs help locally?

What organization is doing the most to effect real change?

Do I give a priority to people in need right here at home? What about giving, say, just one mosquito net to one family in Africa, thereby probably preventing at least one malaria death?

How about the arts? Isn’t it important to keep cultural events alive in our county? Must I feel guilty if a musician or a painter ends up continuing to do her work instead of feeding a desperately hungry child somewhere?

Education is a big need. Should we be expected to donate money simply because politicians in Sacramento have bungled the state budget so badly that the only answer is now pure charity?

Do environmental groups need more funding? Environmental protection is a huge part of the Santa Cruz lifestyle—is funding here as important as, say, feeding the hungry?

Speaking of politicians, should the high cost of running for office prompt me to send money to candidates or political action committees?

By the time I work through these questions in my mind, I’m tempted to just take a stack of bills and hand them over to the first panhandler I see. Guilt is ended and I’ve not contributed to any bureaucratic overhead—except maybe at the local liquor store.

It seems like the mailbox is filling up in recent weeks with progressively more poignant requests—heart-rending pictures and big, red headlines saying “Can You Help?”

That’s the yuckiness of the economic downturn. No, we don’t have breadlines like they did back in the ’30s. But times are as tough as they have been in recent memories. And with unemployment over 10 percent—more like 12, in parts of the county—some folks who have been generous in the past are now simply concerned about ensuring the well-being of their own immediate family.

The best strategy is to plan, at least a bit. How much can you afford to give? Consider a family meeting and setting goals. What kind of good deed is important to us? What do we care about?

One good resource in the county is the United Way and its annual Community Assessment Project. There’s a lot of detail in it, but it’s worth examining the data at least somewhat. The United Way makes its own funding decisions based on how well services are being applied to the needs listed in the CAP. This year’s CAP survey actually indicates that most people are still doing well economically, but there’s an increasing group of folks facing foreclosure. They’re not donating this year—and that’s one reason the need is increasing.

How do you choose a good charity? Locally, the best avenue to follow is to talk to as many people as possible. In a small county, it’s usually easy to find out what charities are well run and which aren’t just by asking around. Also the United Way checks out its member agencies each year to ensure that they’re spending money wisely; you can’t go too far wrong by checking out what organizations are funded by the United Way. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a good place to start.


To check out both the United Way’s partner programs and the Community Assessment report on the internet, go to unitedwaysc.org.
To contact Tom Honig, e-mail  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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