Expecting Others to Give on Our Behalf Shortchanges All of Us

Dec. 14, 2014

It’s the season when everyone gives. Volunteers ring bells outside stores to remind people that the Salvation Army needs the spare change left after our holiday purchases. Donors write checks to support nonprofit agencies as the end of the year approaches. Giving is part of the rhythm of this season as much as visits from Santa Claus. But giving is more than a holiday tradition; it’s an act that defines a community.

Guy David Gundlach changed this community’s future when he left his estate to the Elkhart County Community Foundation. That gigantic gift of more than $150 million meant this community has resources to make it a better place to live for all its residents.  Recently, after people learned the Elkhart County Women’s Shelter was at risk of closing, some asked why the foundation just didn’t fund all of the expenses.  It did cover some costs and it helped Family Services of Elkhart County transfer this key asset in the community to YWCA of North Central Indiana as Family Services shut down.

The foundation is getting requests in multiples of what it can give from the interest on the investments. That would be the case no matter how much it had to give. The way the foundation is sharing what’s viewed as a pile of money is still a new process and it will be scrutinized and questioned, if not criticized, by those who would do it differently.

That’s a healthy conversation to have and it’s fine to question, but we cannot allow ourselves to rely too heavily on the community foundation.  People of faith put money in the offering basket to pay for summer Bible school because they view that as important to their mission in their neighborhood.  Service clubs raise money and give to individuals and agencies that mirror their mission.  Band and orchestra kids sell mattresses or Texas grapefruit to raise funds for their activities.  The community foundation isn’t ever likely to replace those acts, nor should it.

The community foundation’s motto is “Inspiring generosity.” Its staff and volunteer board and committee members want others in the community to imagine new ways of helping, then matching ECCF funds. That’s different than bankrolling projects, whether they’re likely to significantly change our community or continue good work that’s already underway.

Expecting the community foundation to bankroll every need or fund every request isn’t healthy for Elkhart County; if we’re a true community, we all need to have skin in the game. What’s needed is collaboration to fund new ways of working, thinking and living and then measuring whether it works. Accountability is a vital part of that, too.  The act of giving changes a person, sometimes in ways disproportionate to the size of the gift.  Watch a child wearing tattered shoes and dirty clothes as he or she drops change into a red Salvation Army kettle outside a Wal-Mart. Tell the child, “Thank you.” See the smile that takes over his or her face and you’ll understand the joy of giving.

Relying on others to give on our behalf hurts us as individuals and, ultimately, as a community. Each of us can give, whether in big or small ways. This time of year reminds us of those in need, but it also reminds us of the countless ways we can help — and how life-giving it is to do so.