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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Charity needs the spotlight

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By Todd Cohen

Charity, a critical social force, too often goes unseen.

We pay little notice to charity, which itself often prefers to work behind the scenes.

Yet charity will be stronger when we better understand how it works, what makes it tick and the challenges it faces.

Charity is big business, representing 8 percent of the U.S. economy, 1 in 10 jobs and $212 billion in annual giving.

Our communities depend on charity serving people struggling to survive on the margins.

Yet charity itself struggles.

Behind charity’s big numbers and impact are people who often are overworked, underpaid and given too few tools to take on ever-expanding tasks.

The fact that charity plays a critical but barely visible role in our society reflects our deeply conflicted view of good works.

Americans quietly support charity but seem to want to keep it hidden — as if talking about good deeds were unseemly.

But more is at work than simple modesty. We seem unable or unwilling to see that it is our abundance and diversity that fuel the crushing problems we face.

We also do not see that our communities will continue to erode until we work together to take on the problems we face in common.

Unable to deal with weakness in our midst, we live in denial, treating charity as necessary but marginal.

People who serve on charitable boards, for example, often apply a double-standard, denying to charities resources they willingly invest in their own families and businesses.

So we ask charity to make do with less at precisely a time when it must do more in a worsening economy that forces government budget cuts, reduce the value of charitable endowments and increases demand for social services.

Charities share the blame for the lack of recognition they get.

Many charities simply are too busy or think it unseemly to spend time marketing themselves.

Whatever the reason, everyone stands to win by focusing on charity as a central player in our communities.

That will happen only when Americans and charities alike pay more attention to the needs charities face as organizations and to the social problems they exist to address.

Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, ranked anonymous giving as the second-highest form of charity, trailing only self-help loans to the poor.

By making charity less anonymous and lending it a hand to help it stand on its own feet, Americans will help ourselves work together to address our toughest social ills.

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