One painful side-effect of a shrinking consumer economy is a reduction in the money remitted to charity through buy-this-and-we’ll-donate-that schemes. If people stop buying jewelry, that will inevitably include the diamond-crusted pink ribbon pin (proceeds to breast cancer research). If people figure out that most tap water is just as good as bottled water, and that drinking it saves them money while using fewer petroleum and landfill resources, that’s great unless you’re the charity expecting a corporate penny from every bottle bought.
And here’s another no-cost giving scheme whose underpinnings are collapsing along with interest rates: the system by which the interest in lawyers’ trust accounts goes to underwrite legal services for the poor. As interest rates decline, these contributions are shrinking, just at the time more poor people need legal assistance (to try to keep their homes out of foreclosure, for instance).
As the Nonprofiteer’s intolerably smug University of Chicago economics professors used to say, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Eventually someone has to pay. Here’s hoping our new President is inspiring enough to carry people past the shock of discovering that if they really want to give to charity, merely going shopping or passing along the interest on someone else’s money isn’t going to be enough.
Kelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including Aislesay.com and Artscope.net.