This Christmas, Charities Are in Crisis

Nonprofits with the smallest marketing budgets and lowest overhead are taking the largest hit in this economy, and I unfortunately know this from personal experience.
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In a recent study conducted by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, 30 percent of nonprofit organizations reported a drop in donations during the first half of 2011 and 25 percent said their donations became stagnant. Groups with budgets of $3 million or less were more likely to report stagnant or declining returns.

It would seem that nonprofits with the smallest marketing budgets and lowest overhead are taking the largest hit in this economy, and I unfortunately know this from personal experience. The nonprofit I chair, THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy, has lost more than 60 percent of its donors due to the disintegration of the U.S. economy. At this point, it is a miracle our doors remain open.

Nonprofits like THE INSTITUTE that work behind the scenes to advance fundamental rights and don't use scare-tactic fundraising to fill its coffers are often overlooked by the small number of donors that continue to give charitable contributions.

When working with the policy side of religious freedom, for example, it is exceedingly difficult to make our mission tangible to those who have never experienced persecution. Organizations such as ours work quietly behind the scenes to help countries create good laws while putting pressure on those who design bad ones -- laws that are written with the intention of keeping people from freely practicing the dictates of their hearts, minds and consciences.

As Americans, it is easy to take such fundamental rights for granted. The majority of us are sheltered from the daily horrors that affect Christians in China, Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, Scientologists in Belgium and Muslims in France. We do not bear witness to the religious persecution against Baha'is in Iran or Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. We are shielded from the atrocious anti-Semitic acts that are still taking place every day across Europe. And the ongoing use of rape as a weapon in Congo.

In the United States, it is unthinkable that our Constitution could be rewritten with the purpose of deregistering our churches, as Hungary's was earlier this year. In this country, most of us practice -- or don't practice -- our faiths free from the constant fear of being persecuted, prosecuted or murdered for our beliefs.

Whenever I am asked to give a speech about religious intolerance -- such as the one I gave on International Human Rights Day -- audience members are continually blown away when I tell them of the human rights violations that take place around the world simply because of the way someone chooses to pray. During the question and answer period afterwards, someone undoubtedly asks me what they can do to help.

In response, I recommend they approach the issue of religious persecution from a grass-roots perspective. I advise them to educate their friends and colleagues on the harsh realities taking place on the ground in intolerant countries. I motivate them to attend religious freedom events hosted by interfaith organizations and local universities. I invite them to write their Senators, Members of Congress and U.S. Ambassadors. And I encourage them to make a pledge to nonprofits such as THE INSTITUTE, those who handle the policy side of the problem.

It is small organizations such as ours that struggle to remain operational in this type of economy. When people come under pressure to make ends meet, donations to nonprofits are among the first items to be cut from the family budget. This is understandable; as humans, we are engineered to protect what is right in front of us -- our families, our homes, our friends. We quickly lose sight of the big picture. We fail to see how terminating our support to charities will have a resounding impact, one that reverberates to the very bones of the institution and, more importantly, the people it helps.

As the year draws to a close, I encourage those of you who have stopped donating to charities to take a long, hard look at the institutions -- and the persons -- this has affected. In our case, we have cut staff, drastically downsized our offices and removed every possible expense from our budget. And this is not just happening to us -- it is happening to charities all across America.

As we approach the holiday season, please keep in mind that charities need your support now more than ever. I know I speak for thousands of nonprofit leaders when I say to those of you who have stuck by our side during such dark financial times, thank you. May your families and friends be able to openly celebrate the holidays according to the dictates of your hearts, minds and consciences. And may you be able to practice your faith in peace.

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