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Posted at 3:47 PM ET, 12/22/2009

The most important gift you can give

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Terri Lee Freeman

Feed the hungry or house the homeless? Respond to AIDS in Africa or support the arts? What about my alma mater?

Many of us debate these questions — in our heads and around at the kitchen table — in the weeks between Thanksgiving and the new year. Whether we’re motivated by an innate charitable urge or the promise of a tax deduction write-off, this is the season when it is better to give than to receive. Lest we forget, solicitors interrupt our dinners and clog our mailboxes, tugging at our hearts and urging us to do more.

In the midst of this barrage, many people ask me: “Where can my charitable contribution make a difference?” This question takes on more weight this year, when money is tight both for donors and the charities they care about.

As president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region — the largest funder of nonprofit groups in the area — I can offer answers informed by nearly two decades of hands-on experience responding to the most pressing needs of the residents of greater Washington.

In all that time, I have never seen such a dramatic need for food, shelter, clothing and financial assistance. Across the region, thousands of people simply can’t get the basics. Safety-net organizations are struggling to keep up with a growing demand while funding continues to dwindle. Not only are foundation and donor giving down, but deeper government cuts are looming. Recent data illustrate just how hard the economic downturn has hit our area. For example, some 633,000 D.C. area residents are experiencing or at risk of hunger. Of that number 200,000 are children.

In response to this latest crisis, donors of all ages and income levels have given to the Community Foundation’s Neighbors in Need Fund, launched last fall to support basic human needs. Not surprisingly, requests to the fund have already reached $8.4.million, nearly three times the amount donated so far. Sixty-eight safety-net groups throughout the region, such as from the Arlington Food Assistance Center and to Women Empowered Against Violence, have received Neighbors in Need grants.

Time and again nonprofit leaders tell me they are bracing for an even tougher year in 2010. In the words of Bread for the City executive director, George Jones, “We expect funding to be down, yet our needs will increase. That’s a horrible convergence of factors — less money, more people.”

In other words, despite improvements in the stock market and other hopeful indicators, the situation for safety-net nonprofits and the people they serve has worsened gotten worse and will continue to deteriorate for months to come.

While there can be no quarrel that giving to education, the arts and many other issues around the globe is valuable, our community needs help responding to the current state of emergency here at home. “If you have the capacity to help keep a roof over someone’s head or food in a child’s stomach, I don’t think there’s ever been a more critical time than now,” says Judith Dittman of Alternative House, a shelter for homeless teens.”

During this season of giving, let’s all keep our community’s safety net strong.

The writer is president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.

By washingtonpost.com editors  | December 22, 2009; 3:47 PM ET
 
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