PHILANTHROPIC GIFTS really cannot be increased quickly or handsomely enough to support the social programs that are being reduced by the government. If people want these programs, the programs will have to be financed through the tax system and not by corporate charity.

But there's more to private involvement in social programs than cash gifts. And in this connection a couple of recent developments are worth noting. One is that United Way agencies across the country have had a record-breaking fund-raising year. And during the recently completed fall and winter campaign period, local organizations raised an impressive $1.68 billion--more than United Way had ever raised in its 95-year history. Contributions were up in every state, averaging a 10.3 percent increase nationally. The most dramatic accomplishments were in states hard hit by the recession. In Michigan, for example, individual contributions were up almost 5 percent in spite of near-Depression unemployment figures. Even the cities of Detroit and Flint accounted for more gifts this year than last.

About two-thirds of United Way contributions come from individuals; the rest represent business and foundation gifts. In addition to increasing cash donations, these groups are adding to the resources available to social programs by contributing employee volunteer time, lending management personnel and assisting in training programs for volunteers. That's an important part of United Way's work, and it's growing at the grass roots.

The second bright spot on the horizon is news from the Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives that community leaders have begun to respond to the president's call for the formation of local partnerships to address the needs of social programs and charitable organizations. Such partnerships-- drawing on the business, civic, educational, religious and philanthropic sectors--have already been formed in more than 80 cities. The task force hopes to reach 28,000 communities in the months ahead.

This week, the president begins a series of meetings with some of the people he hopes to draw into this program. He is expected to ask corporations and individuals to double their charitable contributions, setting a goal averaging 2 percent of pre-tax profits for business. Efforts will be made at the local level to encourage voluntarism and the kind of in- kind contributions by business that the United Way and many corporate leaders have fostered. These plans are not a substitute for comprehensive and well-funded government programs. But in this year of budget cuts and high unemployment, they are a welcome sign that Americans have begun to respond to the challenge of hard times.