Softening Economy Doesn't Harden Hearts

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, December 21, 2007

There's a temptation to gauge the generosity of a community by the number of million-dollar donations made to the local symphony or university, or the number of fundraising records set by the annual cancer ball or school auction. And until recently, thanks to a booming economy and real estate market, the Washington region has done pretty well by that standard.

But the real test of community spirit comes at times like these, when economies begin to soften and individuals and companies have to make tough choices about how to allocate their attention and their money. The challenge is particularly acute for smaller, less-well-known nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to those most in need but don't have large fundraising staffs or the reputations and social cache of larger cultural and educational institutions.

For the most part, Washington continues to meet that challenge -- or so it seems from submissions I have received from local nonprofit organizations about extraordinary corporate philanthropy. Even as deals come unwound and share prices tumble, the commitment of business leaders remains remarkably strong, particularly in the area of children and families.

In that regard, one of the more innovative local philanthropic initiatives comes from the foundation set up by Sidney Harman, executive chairman of audio equipment maker Harman International Industries, which keeps a small corporate headquarters in the District. It's called the Catalogue for Philanthropy, which is in its fifth year of operation and has funneled $4 million in contributions to more than 300 small local nonprofit organizations that it has identified as the most effective in the region.

The handsome catalogues listing this year's featured programs were mailed to 30,000 potential donors, along with 100,000 posters designed to get donors to the catalogue's website ( For the first time, a few companies -- Chevy Chase Bank, CGI, Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group-- have distributed the catalogue to their employees.

For some of the nonprofit organizations profiled in the catalogue, it's been a transformative experience, giving them access to a base of donors that they would not otherwise have been able to tap. And for donors who don't have time to sift through all the competing solicitations, the due diligence done by the 55 professional reviewers offers the assurance that contributions will go to agencies that are well-run and effective. It's all the brainchild of Harman's daughter, Barbara, a retired English professor who's won support for the catalogue from a number of other family foundations.

These days, there is no higher priority than the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with their families back home. A number of local companies have taken up that cause.

Under the leadership of executive Mike Rand, a Vietnam veteran, Adventist HealthCare has helped to launch Heroes at Home, which assists low-income veterans with home repairs and modifications.

For the third year, the management consultants and financial advisers at MorganFranklin organized a golf tournament and auction that raised $100,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project that assists severely injured soldiers.

The lobbyists at Akin Gump used their political juice to get a $500,000 Pentagon contract for Our Military Kids, which provides support for the children of deployed and severely injured National Guard and Reserve personnel.

The office movers of Kane Co. donated more than 120 boxes of food and other items that were delivered to troops in Iraq just in time for the holidays.

Under the direction of partner Tim McClain, a former general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the law firm of Womble Carlyle launched When Duty Calls, which assists veterans with their disability claims.

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