Introduction: giving is no longer a privilege. This is a weird time. It’s the end of the year—the holidays—a time for celebration and togetherness but also a time when those in need feel their desperate situation most acutely. I know, I know: what’s new right? This happens every year, so what makes this year so special?
Tax reform is suddenly on the menu, for starters. This on the heels of the greatest recession of our time. But perhaps the most important current event is that selfishness and isolationism are experiencing an incredible renaissance. This terrible trifecta is a perfect storm that is rapidly changing the conversation of charitable giving.
This month we’re taking that conversation to three experts here in Portland. Our first installment is with Susan Stoltenberg, the Executive Director of Portland’s YWCA. Next week we'll hear from Lester Thompson, Fully’s CFO, and then Fully’s Social Responsibility Manager, A’Quila Ettien. Together we will discuss why the days of corporate and individual giving are not only a responsibility, but the only viable business model for those corporations wishing to flourish now and in the future.
Part one: Got Bootstraps?
Why should companies/businesses give back?
Employee morale and retention: When employers give back to their communities, incredible things happen. When employees are given time off to take part in their children's schools or other community efforts it strengthens an employee’s loyalty to their employer and raises retention rates. Employers who invest in their community in a just and equitable way, especially if it includes input and participation of their employees, report greater pride and loyalty of their workforce.
When communities flourish, businesses flourish: Businesses need good schools and safe neighborhoods. To attract and retain outstanding leadership, businesses need effective transportation systems, a rich, healthy environment and high quality child care. Developing a diverse, capable and responsive workforce means investing in your community. Of course, there remains some tax benefits to contributions, but this is peanuts compared to the social return on well spent time and money.
What about picking yourself up by your bootstraps?
We hear that argument a lot—"I got here on MY own…" To pick yourself up by your bootstraps, it helps to have boots. It helps to know how to tie the laces and to have seen others succeed in some bootstrap pulling of their own.
Consider all the people who helped you get where you are today. Start early: did you have to wonder where you’d get your next meal from? How often did you move between schools? Were you ever in foster care? As a child, were you raised in an unsafe environment? Did you lose either parent to death, incarceration or drug addiction? Who encouraged you and made you feel like you were important, worthy? Did you have role models?
How about your neighborhood? Could you walk or ride your bike safely? Did you know your neighbors? Were you able to participate in sports? The arts? Summer camps or school clubs?
How about your career? Where and how did you start?
Did someone help you find that first job? What about subsequent jobs? Have the relationships you’ve made helped you get a job or a promotion? If you went to college, who paid for that? How many paychecks could you lose before you'd be homeless? Do you have disability insurance? Who pays for that? Health insurance for you and your family? Who pays for that?
How do your answers to these questions inform who you are today? If your answers were different, imagine what kind of person you’d be.
Fact: those with the most wealth receive the greatest public subsidies
The wealthiest receive thousands of dollars in tax breaks or interest on 1st and 2nd homes, health care expenses and child care. They get the most use of our public infrastructure: streets, utilities, tax breaks and incentives, not to mention the government regulations that assure safe food, cars and travel. Some of the wealthiest receive more money in tax breaks than the total sum of TANF payments (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) in a year. Many operate or benefit from businesses that don't afford their employees livable wages, disability or employer paid health insurance: let alone retirement.
Most of those in or near poverty are working 2-3 jobs. They are part time jobs, with no health insurance, no disability, sporadic employment and erratic shifts. That doesn't leave time to help a kid with homework or money to allow a child to participate in athletics, the arts, tutoring, school clubs and community groups like Scouts, or summer camps. The children of low income parents are the most likely to fail in school and to drop out discouraged. Every summer they lose ground academically—ground they will never make up. For many children, the only hot meals they get are those they get at school. Yet we retain long summer closures. The result? Children who live in hopelessness, grow up to repeat the cycle of hopelessness and despair called poverty.
Who loses when a child's potential is lost through no fault of their own but because they were given a life of hunger, chaos, loneliness, isolation, shame? We all lose. Our community suffers. Who knows what that life might have become? We all benefit when everyone in our community and workforce are healthy, capable, enthusiastic, well educated and motivated to succeed.
There will always be those in need
There will always be those who will never be able to support themselves. As a society, a culture, what do we say to those people who have no boots or will never learn to tie their bootstraps? Or those who did so for years, but due to age or injury have lost that ability?
Those we serve are the young seeking a promising future, the despairing seeking hope and a path to independence, elders seeking comfort and respect for the years they have cared for their families, their community and themselves. They each have a face, a name and a story. As a community, we are made richer by serving them with kindness, compassion and by rekindling their hope with our hearts and hands.
Next up! Fully's CFO Lester Thompson discusses the barriers to charity and why businesses have a disconnect with the real value of long-term giving.
Susan Stoltenberg is the executive Director of Portland's YWCA