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Tim Penny: Support your communities this giving season

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There are two numbers I’ve been reflecting on this month: $2.1 billion and $373.3 billion.

One of these is the total amount raised by the Trump and Clinton campaigns in the last election cycle. One is the amount of charitable contributions during 2015, a record-setting year. Can you guess which is which?

You may be surprised to learn that the smaller amount — $2.1 billion — is what went toward presidential elections. $2.1 billion is not an inconsequential sum; I can think of a thing or two I’d do with that kind of money that could be more useful than mailbox flyers and attack ads. But, more important, that $2.1 billion pales in comparison to the $373.3 billion that the second most generous nation (Myanmar beat out the U.S. last year, according to the Worldwide Giving Index) contributed to charitable purposes in 2015.

The point of calling out these numbers is not to make you give more — or less — to political campaigns. Being a former congressman myself, believe me, I know there is a lot of rhetoric about the role of political contributions, and individuals donating to candidates is not where the problem lies. Rather, what I want you to note is that across the board, Americans are generous people.

Minnesotans are no exception. On Give to the Max Day alone, people collectively donated $20.1 million to Minnesota charities. In Spring Valley, a community of 2,429, nearly $19,000 was raised for their local community foundation.

For sure, November is a month of competing economic interests. Nov. 25, or Black Friday, officially kicks off the gift buying season, followed closely by Cyber Monday. Yet are you aware that Nov. 29 is giving Tuesday? In Minnesota, that is the third charitable day of the month, following National Philanthropy Day (Nov. 9) and Give to the Max Day (Nov. 17). So, while we will be spending quite a bit in the next month and a half on holiday gifts and parties, we are also being asked to open our wallets for a variety of charitable causes.

Again, I point these facts out not to solely ask you for money — although I will make a strong case that giving to Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) is a smart investment in the region — but to make you reflect on one of the most important ways you invest in our collective future. Clearly, politics and government are not the only way to bring about change. Our charitable organizations are also vitally important to our nation’s success.

No doubt, this election has left a strong emotional wake. As I mentioned in my last op-ed, I don’t expect that to go away quickly. In response, many people are already turning to charitable contributions as a way to support causes they care about deeply. They see organizations like SMIF as flexible, non-partisan, issue-focused vehicles for making a difference.

So, as you make your shopping gift list, I would also encourage you to spend some time thinking about the areas where you want to make a difference. As in politics, I advocate for making those contributions (as well as gift purchases) as local as possible. If you have a local community foundation — here at SMIF we alone help to manage 26 in our region — consider supporting their endowment fund. If you feel concerned about a particular issue post-election, find charities that are working for your cause. Perhaps even consider forming a giving circle, pooling resources with others interested in a similar cause, such as the WINGS group in Northfield (Women in Northfield Giving Support). There are many more such organizations to choose from.

For those of you who have already contributed this year — both in time and money — thank you. A spirit of generosity is one of the many assets that makes our region special.

Tim Penny, a former Congressman, is the president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.


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