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  • Dan Connors

Saving the most starfish. Confessions of a United Way volunteer

"One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.

The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!” - Parable of the starfish- author unknown.

The parable of the starfish has inspired and frustrated those who want to do good in the world for ages. How does anyone make a difference in the suffering of the world? How do they choose who to help and who not to help? And most importantly, how do you help starfish and make sure they don't just wash up on the beach again the next day?

I've been working with the non-profit sector in the past few years, both through work and volunteerism. This sector includes a wide range of more and less deserving groups that deal with such things as the environment, education, religion, social services, housing, health care, and the arts. Who you choose to give to, if you give at all, depends a lot on your own personal priorities. Non-profits are struggling this year to replace lost income from cancelled fundraisers due to Covid-19, and the entire sector is challenged like never before.

The tax reform bill of 2017 dealt a big hit to individual giving, in that it removed the incentive for tax filers to deduct their charitable contributions. With a much higher standard deduction, there's no longer much use for people to keep track of their donations, which causing a big drop in donations by individuals. Luckily, increased giving from corporations and the wealthy (who retained their tax deduction in the new bill) has so far made up for that decline, but with strings attached.

The wealthiest Americans donate differently than average citizens. They prefer large donations that fit their worldview and get them recognition in their social and business circles. The arts, education, religious and political organizations are preferred beneficiaries of the rich, which is a problem for those non-profits that don't serve those areas.

As a United Way volunteer, I've been invited along with others to meet with and tour local non-profits in my area. In my Dunning-Kruger revelation, I realized that I knew very little about who these groups were and what they were doing. Many of the agencies that depend on the United Way are not all that well known, but they arguably make a bigger difference than some of the big ones. Meeting with these groups, I realized just how critical and invisible their work has been and wished more people knew about them.

I'll never forget a tour I had of an alcohol rehab facility downtown. The director there told us wonderful stories of people who had been helped to regain their independence, while explaining that donations from the public are hard to get because of the stigma. Luckily, I've never been homeless nor known anyone who was homeless in this community- so why should I donate to a homeless shelter? Homeless shelters, food banks, mental health services are vital parts of the safety net that places like the United Way and government grants keep afloat when no one else can.

Unfortunately, both of these lifelines are under attack. Government grants are in danger of being cut in the age of austerity and conservative government. Recent budget proposals included steep cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance, and the Affordable Care Act is still under threat of collapsing next year with a Supreme Court judgement. In addition, while United Way money has gone up every year, more and more of it is being designated by the donors for preferred agencies. Just since 2017 the restricted amounts have more than doubled, leaving a much smaller pot of unrestricted money to dole out to the deserving agencies that aren't favored by large donors.

More and more, the fate of the poor is being decided by the rich, both in government and in non-profit agencies. Here's the problem- the wealthiest 1% are among the most removed from reality and least qualified to judge who needs money and who doesn't. The professionals on the ground at United Way and in the non-profits see the needs every day and try to respond to them as best they can. They are the ones we can best go to in figuring out how to make the most difference with our limited pot of charitable dollars.

The CARES act passed earlier this year restores a tiny sliver of help for non-profits- a $300 deduction available to all taxpayers without the need for itemizing. Every American needs to make use of this new deduction and resolve to give $300 to the charity that matters most to them. (Just be sure to get a receipt). Just don't default to the easy choices- look online for the groups near you that are rated the highest. (Or give to the United Way and let them do the work for you.)

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