By Melissa Lauber
As Alice, in Lewis Carroll's, Through the Looking Glass, began her adventure, she had to pass through a door where the knocker bore the words, "Nothing is Impossible."
In their hearts, many charities in the United States believe the message that confronted Alice is true today. In the nonprofit world of increasing need and diminishing resources, most of them have been asked, like Wonderland's Red Queen, not only to believe, but do, "six impossible things before breakfast."
In the U.S. today more than 740,000 groups are part of what is known as the Independent Sector. When churches, providing a vast array of outreach programs, are added, that number rises to more than one million. These groups employ nine million people and are assisted by nearly 90 million volunteers. In 1994, this eclectic collection of organizations reported annual funds totaling more than $568 billion and operating expenses of more than $487 billion.
For the average person, who works with household money in the hundred and thousand dollar range, the idea of billions of dollars is so unfamiliar that it becomes impressive. But the typical nonprofit, faced with ever increasing needs and a government intent on cutting back on funding and services, is feeling anything but impressive.
A recent study by the advocacy group, Independent Sector, polled 100 charitable institutions to discover the potential impact of some of the recent federal budget proposals.
The organizations studied, reported spending $765 million on 306 separate programs. Federal funding paid for 32 percent of this programming. Funding cuts are not necessarily felt immediately, but by "2002, if the participating organizations had to make up their program revenue with private giving, charitable contributions would have to be increased by 124 percent from the previous year, over and above expected increases."
The report concluded that, based on recent legislative intent, nonprofit organizations in the U.S. will face a $254 billion cumulative 'gap' during the Fiscal Years 1996-2002.
Translate and multiply such numbers by the impact they will have on individual lives and the results becomes staggering. The Arkansas Easter Seal Society, for example, will be forced to serve 20 percent fewer children in its early intervention program for children with disabilities and the Lutheran Social Services of Michigan will provide 18 percent fewer days in its nursing homes for the elderly.
Add to these concerns statistics like those from the Massachusetts Center of Technology that the number of homeless people in the U.S. is predicted to rise in the next 15 years from approximately 2 million to 18 million.
But there is hope. It shines in the increasing number of people willing to volunteer their time and money.
A recent Gallup Poll finds that giving and volunteering in America is slowly rising. Conducted this past summer, the poll found that "in 1995 the average household contribution among contributing households was $1,017, which was 16 percent higher than in 1993 ($880)." Accounting for inflation, this marks the first real increase in giving since 1989.
Volunteerism also rose. In 1995, Americans gave 20.3 billion hours to worthy causes, more than a billion hours higher than in 1993. "Forty-nine percent of American adults volunteered in 1995, whereas 48 percent volunteered in 1993," the Gallup poll reported.
Also hopeful is the constantly rediscovered fact, that the mere act of asking still plays a vital role in motivating people to give. According to Gallup, "when asked to give, 85 percent of respondents will oblige. When not asked, only 44 percent contribute."
In the second century, Tertullian, one of the great Christian writers, was converted by watching those who lived out their faith. "Look how these Christians love each other," he wrote with amazement.
For Tertullian, believing "six impossible things before breakfast" was an act of faith. In fact, he wrote, "I believe because it is impossible."
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