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BLOG: The Charity Spillover Effect

24 April 2014 at 10:26 am
Staff Reporter
Not for Profit Fulbright scholar Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine delivers an outsider's take on the visibility of charities in America in her latest blog.

Staff Reporter | 24 April 2014 at 10:26 am


BLOG: The Charity Spillover Effect
24 April 2014 at 10:26 am

Not for Profit Fulbright scholar Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine delivers an outsider's take on the visibility of charities in America in her latest blog.

In my first weeks in the US on the inaugural Fulbright Scholarship for Non-Profit Leadership, I have been interested to see how visible charities are. My Fulbright project will explore how American charities engage in transparency and accountability, particularly given the relatively low level of government intervention in charities here compared to Australia.

As I settle in but before I begin working with sector organisations, I have attempted to look at American charitable activities as an outsider; attuned to, but fairly ill-informed about, the shape and presence of charitable and Not for Profit organisations in the US.

Unsurprisingly, my travels through several states in my first weeks reveal much variety in the visibility of charities. In southern states such as Florida and Georgia, highways are both the fastest route and the most significant infrastructure around which urban and regional life is built.

Consequently, highways are a focal point of advertising and proselytising. Alongside commercial outlets and churches, charities promote their mission and activities. Here, the most notable forms of charitable advertising fall into two groups: self-help and information groups about medical conditions; and local initiatives, such as those aimed at keeping kids in school or drug- and alcohol-free.

The <.org> URL signals the Not for Profit status of these organisations and is often displayed as prominently as the charity’s name, literally signposting the public to more information about their activities.

Charitable advertising is by no means mainstream and their ads jostle for attention against the many more promotions for cosmetic dentistry, food outlets and rifle clubs. But it is among the most readily visible evidence of charities in the large sprawl of the South.

By comparison in the north-east, highways are still essential infrastructure but have nothing like this incessant level of advertising. In cities such as New York and Philadelphia, buildings provide a more common backdrop for promoting charity; and the ads tend more towards health centres and social programs.

The impact of the consumerist culture on American charities doesn’t stop with advertising. In a practice Australian charities also engage in, my American-purchased sunscreen has been approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation. But that’s just the start: my tub of breakfast yoghurt proclaims that 10 per cent of the producer’s profits are given to charity; and at my local wine merchant, you can see which of the stocked companies donate to charity on each sale.

Charity shopfronts are another pointer of charitable activities for someone briefly passing through a community. Ask Americans what charities they know and Goodwill is usually the first they mention.

Goodwill in the US.

The Salvation Army is also well known through its Salvo’s stores, particularly in the outer suburbs.

Yet this visibility doesn’t reveal the more complex story of how individual communities identify their own priorities for, and ways of organising, charity.

The streets around the Miami beachfront in Florida tell a particular story about this community’s Not for Profit activity: they are peppered with environmental organisations focussing on beach care, or sea life or reducing pollution.

Their location in South Beach, a mecca of art deco design and architecture, does not mask the small, unrenovated offices of these locally-focused organisations; a familiar and ironically reassuring connection to NFPs operating with scarce resources around the world, in this otherwise affluent and showy neighbourhood.

Of course, many people engage in charitable activity through volunteering. My new home city of New York has had its fair share of disasters through which its communities have supported each other voluntarily.

One of the most recent events to enlist mass volunteerism was Superstorm Sandy on October 29, 2012, which left 44 dead in New York City, 34 in New Jersey, and caused damage in excess of $63 billion.

On my first museum visit, I caught ‘Rising Waters: Photographs of Sandy’ at the fabulous Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition presented images of Superstorm Sandy from 400 photographers (professional and amateur).

Amidst the truly extraordinary images of the storm and its impacts was a series on the relief effort that followed. As the exhibition explains, major charities made a significant contribution: in the month following Sandy, Red Cross disaster workers distributed 78,450 ‘comfort kits’ containing soap and shampoo.

A massive volunteer effort, reportedly involving 12,000 people, was supported by organisations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, United Sikhs and Mennonites from Pennsylvania. 

‘Community Comes Together’ by Liz Borda depicts a member of the United Sikhs organisation working alongside marines, Staten Island, 19 November 2012. Displayed in ‘Rising Tide’, Museum of the City of New York.

In parallel, another army of volunteers engaged in ‘Occupy Sandy’, cooking and distributing more than 15,000 meals in the weeks after the storm; and working to clear out detritus from the homes and communities devastated by the storm.

I’m intrigued by what links the Sandy relief effort to the Occupy Wall St movement. I’m also fascinated that beyond those who joined established charities, almost half as many people again enlisted in an organic, far less organised volunteer effort to support communities hit by Sandy.

As I settle in to my new home and begin my examination of transparency among American charities, I’ll be keen to hear more about what attracts people to volunteer with charities; and what drives them to find an alternative options for their charitable spirit.

‘Paradise Park’ by Bryan Thomas, Highlands, New Jersey, 3 November 2012. Displayed in ‘Rising Tide’, Museum of the City of New York.
‘Xavier Barrel Brigade’ by Mike Benigno, Belle Harbor, Queens, 9 November 2012. Displayed in ‘Rising Tide’, Museum of the City of New York.

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