Archives For November 2011

A Smorgasbord of Opportunities

For those who want to make a significant difference in the lives of others, here is one great way to do so: invest in opportunities for low-income youth.  They are people who, without a charitable second chance, are likely destined for a life of menial work and bouts of joblessness.

Anyone who has ever met Toni Elka immediately becomes aware of the power that giving has to transform young people’s lives.  She is founder of Future Chefs, a nonprofit that coaches high school students in their pursuit of a career in the culinary arts and helps them to develop a plan for successfully moving their lives forward.  Listen to a speech Elka gave in Boston earlier this week.  I was utterly moved when she asked all the young men and women in attendance who had been helped by Future Chefs and a similar nonprofit, Year Up, to stand.  The fruits of these organizations’ efforts were there in plain sight.

For the many low-income youth who do not have supportive adult role models in their lives, becoming connected to these types of organizations offers second chances in life – opportunities they probably would never otherwise get.

A Slam-Dunk Investment: Supporting Early Childhood Education

While the Occupy movement should be applauded for drawing attention to America’s widening rich-poor gap, what steps might we take to mitigate this gap?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote that the single most important thing we can do is to “occupy the classroom.”  Kristof is up to something big here.  And it’s actually pretty simple: We must enable all kids to have access to a high-quality early childhood education.

This need is acute given that evidence of significant cognitive and health disparities related to family income becomes apparent within the first year of life — a gap that widens when some parents cannot afford to send their kids to preschool.  The federal program, Head Start, has been addressing this problem for nearly 50 years but it consistently lacks the funds it needs to achieve universal access.

Kristof’s suggestion that the government should substantially increase its commitment to this program is wishful thinking.  It matters little that the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has shown that investments in early childhood education pay for themselves over time.  The mood in Washington these days is, after all, hostile to new social spending.  So while Kristof is clever to point out that “the question isn’t whether we can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford not to provide it,” enhanced support will need to come from somewhere else than from the government.

This is where all of us have a role to play.  The nonprofit agencies that run Head Start programs get their money almost entirely from the feds, and these agencies lack the ability to do much to change this.  That is because they do not have the resources to fundraise extensively.  Although we rarely get mailings asking for donations, these organizations nonetheless need our help.  There are nearly 2900 of them around the United States carrying out Head Start programs.  In doing research for the book I am writing, I have recently learned about two in Eastern Massachusetts, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and Quincy Community Action Programs.  Supporting any of these organizations would be a significant way for each of us to begin to occupy the classroom.

Thinking long-term at a time of escalating short-term need

With the nation mired in high unemployment and amidst the ongoing foreclosure crisis, there is escalating daily need all across the U.S. – for food, shelter, clothing, and fuel assistance.  Yet, how best to respond to this need is no simple matter.  A fascinating article in today’s New York Times identifies a conundrum: although charitable giving in 2010 rose slightly over 2009, donations to nonprofits that address basic needs fell 6.6 percent.

We would be mistaken to see these numbers as a sign that we have turned a cold shoulder at a time when growing numbers of people could use our help.  The Times article subsequently featured donors who have deliberately decided not to provide stopgap relief because they want instead to fund lasting change.

Shelters and soup kitchens do, of course, need our support more than ever during this time of rising need.  But, we must also not lose sight of the importance of thinking long-term and seeing charity as a way of investing in opportunity.  Let’s not forget our ultimate goal here; it’s not to give fish but to teach more people how to fish.