Why small charities should be on your holiday giving list

Crain’s Chicago Business

December 07, 2018 

Why small charities should be on your holiday giving list

If you want to maximize the impact of your holiday-season giving, find a small social service agency that needs help. They're all around you.

JOE CAHILL   On Business

 

As holiday-season obligations bear down, charitable giving can become one more task to be dispatched as expeditiously as possible.

For many of us, the quick and easy solution is to send a check or online donation to a big-name organization. We can count on Catholic Charities, Easter Seals or the Red Cross to make good use of our money. And so they do.

But as we rush to check another box on our holiday to-do list, we may be passing up opportunities to make a bigger difference. Hundreds of small organizations doing great work in communities throughout our region need help even more than high-profile groups do.

Check around, and you might find an agency nearby that sends caregivers to help seniors with cooking, grocery shopping and other daily activities, enabling them to live at home longer. Maybe a group in your neighborhood provides refuge and assistance to domestic violence victims. Another agency might offer housing, job-training and social events to developmentally disabled adults. Small homeless shelters across metropolitan Chicago give thousands of people living on the streets a warm, safe place to sleep. Other groups help people overcome drug or alcohol addiction—and keep their jobs, homes and families.

The list goes on, and it adds up to a big share of the need in our communities. Agencies with annual budgets of $1 million or less provide about 40 percent of the social services in Illinois, estimates Judith Gethner, executive director of Illinois Partners for Human Service, an advocacy group for service providers across the state.

"Without them, you'd have a lot more people in hospitals, a lot more people homeless, a lot more people in jail, and a lot more kids dropping out of school," Gethner says.

Most of these agencies go about their work with little fanfare, little attention and too little money. Lacking the bankrolls, connections and fundraising reach of their larger counterparts, many struggle endlessly to stay afloat. They can't afford to stage gala fundraisers at Michigan Avenue hotels. Some can't even afford to put on a golf outing at a local course. Few have a sugar-daddy megadonor standing by to write a check to cover the annual operating deficit. Their boards of directors tend to comprise local car dealers, real estate agents and restaurateurs, not billionaires or Fortune 500 CEOs who control multimillion-dollar charity budgets.

Smaller social service groups are still reeling from the combined impact of the Great Recession and the Illinois budget crisis. The former put a dent in private donations, and the latter dealt a crippling blow to small agencies, which generally depend on state funding for 40 to 90 percent of their budgets, Gethner says. A lot of them went under during the two years Illinois stopped payingmany of its bills.

And even when the state pays, agencies have to wait at least three months for reimbursement checks that rarely cover the full cost of their operations. Paying for basics like computers and office supplies is a perennial challenge. Increasingly, smaller agencies are turning to private donations to fill the gap.

Your contribution matters immensely to these important organizations as they work to fulfill their missions while reducing their reliance on government funding. A good fundraising season could enable an agency to trim its waiting list and serve more people. For another, generous donations this year might keep the doors open in 2019.

So if you want to maximize the impact of your holiday-season giving, find a small social service agency that needs help. They're all around you.