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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Give Till It Makes You Feel Good

William Borden and Carol Vecchio

Recent article titles from Philanthropy Today sound like real downers: "National Cathedral faces deep cuts"; "Arts institutions face financial distress"; "International Red Cross braces for cutbacks due to recession"; "Salvation Army worries economic downturn will hurt kettle campaign"; "Hospitals make cuts in response to economic downturn."

The current recession, which is predicted to be a long one, is forcing people to reevaluate where their limited funds will go. For locally based nonprofits, especially those depending predominantly on charitable contributions, there is understandable concern. Fran Yeatts, director of the West Seattle Food Bank, says, "We've seen a 20 percent increase in household visits; the number of times seniors visit the Food Bank is up 38 percent over the same period last year." The community has greater needs at the exact time when donors, too, have needs.

Will people stop giving? There is evidence that says no; charitable giving and altruism make people feel good in ways that can be measured scientifically. The New York Times this year reported that the "warm glow effect" of giving can be traced to a particular pleasure center of the brain that is measurable with brain scans. When we give to others, it makes us feel good physically.

It also suggests that altruism may take new and different forms in these lean years. Yes, monetary giving may decrease, but with altruism "hard-wired" into the brain as The Times article suggests, people will continue to support the nonprofit area by whatever means they can. It may mean a smaller donation to our favorite cause, or we may decide to volunteer some of our time instead.

Sarah (not her real name) works in community affairs at Washington Mutual. Her job will end soon and she'll join thousands of others throughout our state who face layoffs or termination. But Sarah sounds remarkably positive. "I'm ready to reinvent myself," she said, "maybe in a big way; maybe in a small way. I've worked with great people here, and had the opportunity to work with some fantastic people in the community. I might take this opportunity to leave the corporate world and work for a nonprofit." Sarah leaves little doubt that giving back to the community is part of her character.

So we may not be able to give in the same ways and in the same amounts as we have, but we still need to contribute. The key to giving in tighter economic times lies in making a conscious choice about how and to whom we want to share ourselves. Instead of an "all or nothing" approach, this is an opportunity to define a clear vision of how we want to support others.

It's similar to the process we go through to find a job: When we know our passions and what we have to offer as specifically as possible, then we can more easily find the fit that exists out there. What's your passion for giving? How can you share that this holiday season and in the year ahead?

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William Borden is executive director of Earth Share of Washington. Carol Vecchio is executive director of Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal.

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