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Siphoning Off Philanthropy: July Question of the Month Results


Last October, several participants in GuideStar's annual nonprofit economic survey mentioned the impact that gas prices were having on their organizations. This summer, with fuel costs averaging $3.00 a gallon nationally, we decided to revisit the issue. Thus, the July Question of the Month asked, "Are gas prices affecting your nonprofit organization?" and "Are gas prices affecting your personal charitable giving?"
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Some 73 percent of participants said that gas prices were affecting their organizations; only 19 percent said they weren't. The remaining 8 percent of respondents were not associated with a nonprofit.

Surprisingly, 66 percent of respondents stated that fuel costs were not affecting their personal charitable giving. Another 31 percent said that gas prices were having an impact, and 3 percent did not know.

Effects on Organizations

Not surprisingly, higher transportation costs were mentioned most often as a result of climbing fuel prices. "In Special Olympics, the biggest ticket item is transportation to competition, whether across town or in another state. All modes of transportation are passing along the gas price increases," wrote Nancy Stanton of Special Olympics Florida. An anonymous participant noted that his or her organization is "spending nearly $30000 more since 2004" on diesel fuel for its bus system. Another anonymous respondent reported, "As a small food bank and pantry, the cost of collecting donations has skyrocketed."

Volunteers are feeling the pinch as well. According to Margaret Burton, "Most of the volunteers" for Meals on Wheels of Odessa "are retired or living on fixed incomes. They do not have the money for the extra gas it takes in delivering the homebound citizens their meals." An anonymous participant observed, "Our volunteers think twice about driving to do volunteer work and taking care of things for our organization." Terri Davin of the Green County Watershed Alliance reported a similar problem: "We are a rural county in PA and volunteers are reluctant to drive the miles we have to drive for meetings and events."

Some organizations are scaling back or cutting programs. Alice Benton noted that Senior Citizens of Christian County "is going to be forced to eliminate some rural services" from its senior transportation routes. "Donations and special events and fundraising," she observed, "cannot keep up with increased costs." On the other end of the age spectrum, an anonymous participant from an emergency shelter for children reported, "This year, we are planning less road trips and doing much more locally." The Friends of Sunrock Farm, Inc. "can provide fewer bus trips for needy kids," wrote Cynthia Louis.

The problem extends beyond social service organizations and transportation programs. An art museum is canceling some touring exhibitions and stepping up fundraising for others. Enrollments for a nonprofit dance studio have dropped 9 percent. A museum bookshop is ringing up fewer sales. The Naples Players, Inc. has started to reimburse volunteers, some of whom travel "25+ miles each way to rehearsals and performances in community theatre productions," according to Becky Troop.

Effects on Donations and Donors

"Donations are down," an anonymous participant observed succinctly. Shelly Lee of YouthFriends noted, "Gas prices are lowering the amount of expendable income available from donors." Kent Lucas reported that the Winners Circle Juvenile Mentoring Program was receiving "smaller monthly gifts, especially from older folks who tend to give small monthly gifts."

Anonymous participants who that said fuel costs were affecting their personal philanthropy echoed those comments: "I am unable to give as much as in past years because of the price of gas cutting into my discretionary income." "I try to combine my driving trips that are errands for the Non-profit I volunteer with. It has reduced the coverage I provide to the needs of the org." "As an individual, there is not enough money to cover our auto and utility expenses, so nothing left to give."

Conclusion

Kenneth P. Voytek of Goodwill Industries International summed up the situation for many nonprofits: gas prices are "raising operating costs, reducing customer counts, and reducing donations. We have surveyed our members on this issue and it is having an impact on their business and operating costs."

Ruth Wikoff-Jones, a private high school fundraiser, did find one positive benefit to the challenges that higher fuel costs present: "We are becoming more creative and cost-conscious in our travel methods."

Suzanne E. Coffman, August 2006
© 2006, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.
Topics: Charitable Giving