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Foundation For the Carolinas Response to the Economic Crisis

by Michael Marsicano

January 8,2009

As we enter 2009, Charlotte has lost a Fortune 100 company, the nation’s economy is in disarray, and controversy has plagued our local United Way. Charlotte is one of the most charitable cities in the United States, but can its robust philanthropy survive this perfect storm?

The intent to continue giving robustly appears intact. Donors who hold funds at Foundation For The Carolinas distributed more than $100 million to nonprofit organizations in 2008, holding nearly even with 2007 numbers.

However, the dire economic situation has had the dual effect of increasing human service needs while decreasing capacity to give to charitable organizations. Some donors are seeking help from the organizations they once supported, and many are needy for the first time in their lives. Eighty percent of families who received groceries from Loaves & Fishes on a recent day had never before sought assistance. The emergency food pantry is reporting a 30 percent increase in demand over last year. Similarly, Crisis Assistance Ministry is reporting a 40 percent increase in the number of families requesting help with rent and utility payments, many of whom have experienced recent job losses.

In response to the growing crisis, Foundation For The Carolinas established a Critical Need Response Fund to shelter, feed, clothe and keep warm those in need throughout the winter months. We launched the fund in December 2008 with an initial $1 million gift from Sandra and Leon Levine, two of Charlotte’s most generous philanthropists. A task force of citizen volunteer leaders is making grant awards to Mecklenburg County nonprofits that have seen a recent increase in demand. Grants are awarded to agencies that can most effectively meet these human service needs, though a number of deserving organizations may be turned away because of limited funds.

Foundation For The Carolinas provides a neutral platform where members of the faith, business and philanthropic communities have come together to address the human service crisis. The Leon Levine Foundation, Mecklenburg Ministries, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Central Carolinas are our partners in this effort. The economy will eventually rebound, and our United Way will emerge revitalized. In the interim, Foundation For The Carolinas is nimble enough to address current needs through the administration of this fund.

Despite economic hardships, our community’s outpouring to the Critical Need Response Fund has been remarkable. As of December 30, 2008, $1,639,765 has been raised to benefit our neighbors in Mecklenburg County. The personal messages from our donors tell the story of a community that is compelled to reach out to strangers in need. Some donors have written notes of praise, memoriam and well-wishes in the memo lines of their checks. Many others have sent handwritten cards and letters with their donations. One memorable response came from a mother who shared a newspaper article about the initiative with her three boys. The young philanthropists, ages eight, seven and four, pooled their money and collectively gave $12.25 to the fund.

Inspired by the fund’s initial success, similar efforts have been established by other counties under the umbrella of Foundation For The Carolinas. Across the United States other nonprofits – including a number of community foundations – have launched funds in response to the economic crisis. As a community and as a nation, we still have faith our citizens will care for one another, even when most are experiencing their own hardships.

Two years ago I wrote a piece in Charlotte Viewpoint about the kindness of strangers. The community’s outpouring to the Critical Need Response Fund has redefined for Charlotte the very notion of kindness to strangers. Over the winter months, the generosity of these donors will assist thousands of people - individuals they will never know but who will be forever grateful.

The response to the initiative is perhaps a bellwether of Charlotte’s philanthropic future. In the past we frequently turned to major corporations to launch charitable initiatives. The Levine gift and the generous contributions from numerous families foretell a new philanthropic landscape in which individuals are first to respond when a community need arises. We’re all in this together, and together we can help all.

Donations to the Critical Need Response Fund may be made via Foundation For The Carolinas’ secure web site, or by calling 704.973.4588.

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