Thursday, October 30, 2008

Community Foundations - lend us your data!

I've been talking to lots of people, reading lots of reports, and debating trend data and anecdotes with reporters, researchers, statisticians, historians, foundation executives and board members - everyone wants to know what the future holds for philanthropy.

The truth is, we don't know (though I've posted my opinions). We have trend data that shows limited declines in charitable giving during recessions, but these data don't goback to severe economic shifts such as the Great Depression. We have some recent giving information from online giving marketplaces - but nothing aggregated or longitudinal. We have stories of nonprofits going out of business, public commissions withdrawing or cutting funding, and foundations stepping up to deal with foreclosures. And, at the same time, we hear daily reports about plunging home values, credit crunches on small businesses and student loans, foreclosure rates, and hits to retirement funds.

We do have one source of data that could shed light on the nonprofit and giving practices in communities all over the country from the late 1920s and through the 1930s - community foundations, federations and United Ways. Many such organizations from Boston to Cleveland to Winnipeg were founded in the 19-teens and 1920s - these organizations are sitting on a gold mine of data, primary sources on donors interests, community needs and giving patterns. Similarly, there are churches and community organizations that trace their history back long enough to have some information to share. It is no doubt in ledgers, annual reports and photo albums that will require patient analysis, but the stories are there to be found, if we're willing to look.

So here it is - my free offer for 1) reporters looking for sources, 2) statisticians looking for historical trends data, 3) graduate students in search of dissertation topics, and/or industrious bloggers looking for some insight into their local community in previous dire economic times. The stories are there, though they will require some searching around and dusting off. Don't misunderstand me - things won't be the same now as they were then. But it never ceases to amaze me how much we can learn about the future by looking to the past.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is my strongly held personal (not to be mistaken for my organization's) belief that community foundations are not only the stewards of assets, but also stewards of community knowledge. As such they need to leverage both for the well being of the community they serve. Consequently, community foundations should do there best to liberate this organizational knowledge and make it as readily available and consumable as possible.