By: Gregory R. Witkowski and Jeffrey Schlegelmilch
This piece was originally published on April 7, 2020 in The Hill.
This pandemic, so pervasive it seems dreamed up in Hollywood, can lead to a feeling of helplessness as we sit at home doing our best to practice social distancing. If you are feeling like you want to do something to help, you are not alone.
Americans have historically participated in public life as much through their philanthropic donations as through the ballot box with more people giving each year than voting in presidential elections. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans gave generously to the victims, donating over $125 million following a national telethon.
After 9/11 it was clear who the immediate victims were. Today, we are all susceptible to COVID-19, so it might be tempting to say that everybody needs help. But in our research on past disasters, we have found that even though all are affected, the impact varies tremendously based on economic class.
A Federal Reserve study indicates that about 2 out of 5 Americans would have trouble managing an unanticipated expense of just $400. This means they certainly couldn’t support themselves without income from a job.
Historically federal plans have taken weeks or months to get money to individuals after disasters, with many formal assistance programs favoring those who are not most in need, or at the very least offering only an incomplete solution, with charitable giving a necessary complement to government assistance.
Fortunately, the CARES act has also incentivized giving by including a $300 above line charitable deduction, which means that even those who take the standard deduction can reduce their taxes by a charitable gift.
So, if you feel helpless at home and want to do something, consider making a gift to some of the nonprofits on the front lines addressing needs. While disaster relief is generally given most strategically after the rebuilding has started, a pandemic poses a special challenge because the extent of the need is so great and the damage is economic more than physical.
We, therefore, urge you to consider a gift at this time and present here a few causes to consider.
Look local first. Local safety-nets are often the first and last resort when members of the community find themselves facing hard times. While there is tremendous economic pressure on all industries, small businesses, hourly and gig workers will likely be hit the hardest. Food pantries, medical centers, and rent assistance programs are all important at this time for those who normally live paycheck to paycheck. If you are not sure who to give to, community foundations are often a good clearinghouse for donations.
Many have spearheaded funds collected explicitly for COVID-19. For instance, New York and Seattle have launched specific funds, as have other community-focused foundations throughout the country. An online search for community fund and COVID 19 will likely lead you to these funds or see the Council on Foundation’s community foundation locator.
In addition to the economic impact, think about the social effects of this disease being associated with China and consider donating to Asian-American organizations in your community. Historically, reported cases of domestic violence go up after a disaster and this pandemic, with itsfocus on staying at home, can lead to especially dangerous situations. Many communities have centers on domestic violence that can help place victims and continue to advocate for their needs. Many communities have centers on domestic violence that can help place victims and continue to advocate for their needs. Such centers are often forgotten among the basic needs that communities require after a disaster.
So for those fortunate to be in a position to help others, don’t let reports of past or future stimulus packages convince you that you don’t need to act, or that you are helpless in the face of a challenge too great. We can replace the helplessness of social distancing with the helpfulness of social good. And in maintaining the spirit of social distancing, while being socially active, all of these donations can be made online and help your local and global neighbors.
Gregory R. Witkowski is a senior lecturer of nonprofit management at Columbia University and is writing a book on nonprofit and philanthropic roles in the relief, recovery, and reconstruction of Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.
Jeff Schlegelmilch is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the forthcoming book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press.