Private charities funding more government programs

Aug 27, 2014

Private charities are finding themselves asked to step in to help pay for services and programs that were previously in the government's domain. As Illinois Public Radio's Bill Wheelhouse reports, it seems to be an increasing trend since the economy took a dip several years ago.:

Private fundraising for government programs isn't necessarily new. State Universities have long engaged in fundraising especially with their alumni, and elementary school groups have held bake sales for decades:

"It used to be the PTA bake sale that raised money for the playground. Now they might be raising money for literally textbooks something that’s more of a requirement, a necessity  whereas before it used to be more of a luxury."

That's Mark  Hrwyna, Senior Editor of the trade publication, The Non Profit Times. He says since the great recession, charity helping out the public sector is happening more often:

"Parks is a classic example of that, whether its government funding going away for parks, or parks getting to the point where people want to take action and they'll create a conservancy or some sort of organization that either provides volunteers to make up for that or raises money for specific improvements maybe."

A new effort in west-central Illinois is a perfect example. A group of citizens is trying to find a way to help pay expenses at the Jim Edgar Fish and Wildlife Area in Cass County, about 25 miles northwest of Springfield.  

Dustin Fritsche is the county's economic development director. He says the group wants to help out in both a hands on manner and also raising money for the park:

"So that the  site director and his staff are hopefully able to do more things as far as either equipment repairs or replacement or expanding some staff hours so that more maintenance can get done.”

Those are needs that in the past were government’s responsibility to take care of. But when government lacks the ability, it’s either someone else pick up the torch and raise the money another way or simply do without. 

It’s not just in Illinois. Nationally, a group that fund raises for New York's Central Park has been asked to share some of its bounty with other New York City parks that are struggling financially.

Mark Hrywna with the Non Profit Times says charity involvement with projects that used to fall within the government purview is certainly a trend, although a lot of hard data to gauge that is difficult to come by.

However, a recent study from the Boston based philanthropy consultant  Bridgespan analyzed 400 charitable gifts of over a million dollars. It showed that 40 percent of the donations were in some way connected to government. The biggest chunk going to public universities. Philanthropy is becoming more important for those schools in a new age of government austerity. 

A Springfield area group is taking on the challenge as it tries to improve an aging thoroughfare in the capital city. Jen Dillman is president of Springfield's MacArthur Boulevard Association. The road was at one time a retail haven, but more recently became home to payday loan establishments. A business renewal is underway there. Still, Dillman's group is forming a 501-C3 to raise money to help:

"Money is tight everywhere. There's no question. I think that everything needs to be public private partnerships. Everybody needs to have a part in this. All of these small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open and there's not money to do beautification or upgrades to their building, so if we can find funding to help assist them I think that's great."

The partnership talk is an indicator that that they don't expect government funding to come back anytime soon.

Private support to help out government projects isn't the only area where charity money is going; it’s also being used to attempt to improve government performance.

That Bridgespan report I mentioned also notes that philanthropists are giving to help cities be more innovative and to other projects to fix political and budget processes. The study's author says they are examples of where donors can help government do more with less.