The gospel according to Jerry

The Buncombe County commissioners have received requests from various nonprofit organizations for over $8 million in grants or subsidies, to be allocated from the county’s upcoming budget.

Every one of these charities is a worthy cause and very deserving of community support. I have personally made substantial contributions to several of these agencies; I think their work in the community has contributed to the quality of life for the many people they have served and the community in general.

Having said that, it pains me to say that it would be a grave error for the commissioners to give even one dollar to any one of these groups. I further suggest that the county should amend the county charter to prohibit such spending of the taxpayers’ money for any nonprofit unless they perform a specific service under contract to the county and their performance is subject to strict audit.

I have been actively fundraising for various charities for more than 50 years, and I can’t think of any effort that I have experienced that is more difficult and heartbreaking than trying to convince people to part with their hard-earned money for some worthy cause.

If one thinks about it, giving to charity is not a natural act. Our animal tendency is to husband our resources. That is why, when we raise money to help others, we resort to raffles, auctions, honorary naming, testimonial dinners, religious edicts and a whole host of innovative gimmicks that appeal to everything from egos to greed.

Fundraising is all about getting in the trenches, holding meetings, one-on-one hard solicitations, organizing functions and telethons, and just plain badgering friends, relatives and strangers.

It is, therefore, no wonder that these nonprofits seek money from government funds in order to reach their financial goals. It is far easier to lobby three or four elected officials than it is to personally hard-solicit hundreds or even thousands of individual contributors to get the same amount of money.

The process of considering these allocations creates several problems for the county commissioners.

First, tax money is assessed without giving taxpayers an option. While most charitable funds are supported by individuals with a sincere and passionate belief in the mission of their nonprofit, when tax money is allocated to one or more charities by the county, those funds are distributed according to the subjective whims of the governing body. The taxpayers have no voice whatsoever and they may have real issues with some of the groups that receive their money.

The next problem is that when you start down this road of golden largess, where does it stop? Like a lot of you, I probably get as many as a thousand solicitations a year from nonprofits. Once these groups realize that the county is giving out money, their hands will go out, making it “Palm Springs” at the courthouse. Do the commissioners really want to suffer multitudes of lobbyists advocating everything from religious sects to animal rights?

The county also does not have any real system for auditing these charities, in contrast to an organization like the United Way, which demands strict accountability from the various organizations that receive its allocations.

The worst issue, however, may be the fact that when elected officials approve funds for charities, they are guilty of the most egregious act of pork-barrel politics. After all, what better way to get lots of votes from large numbers of people who support a particular charity than to grant it a huge donation — not of their personal money, but of the taxpayers’ money? On the other hand, if they dole out money to some supplicants and not to others, then they run the risk of alienating those who support the charities denied.

It is the county’s responsibility to keep taxes at the lowest level possible in order to reduce the burden on its citizens. Many of the citizens of Buncombe County are low-income people, in particular, those of our elderly population living on fixed incomes. Many of these people already receive aid from some of the very charities that might request funds, such as for meal deliveries or fuel to heat homes.

A higher tax just increases the pressure on these people’s limited budgets, making them more dependent on outside help while redistributing some of their meager funds to other charities.

Most of the recent charitable requests made to the county were for new or renovated physical facilities. I know how hard these wonderful, dedicated volunteers work to make things happen in the nonprofit agencies. I know the work is backbreaking, but you have to keep your eye on the worthy goal and maintain your passion till the job is done and the funds are found.

Go back to the trenches. Reenergize the campaign — and when you decide that you have gone the last mile without realizing your goal, one option is to get a loan for the balance.

The community banks in this area have been very generous with loans to nonprofits, both in terms and interest rates. Be sure that you get as many of your fellow supporters as possible to sign a personal guarantee on the loan. This enables you to get additional money from not only current supporters but future supporters, and it also guarantees that you will have a large cadre of solicitors wanting to make sure they raise the funds to pay off the loan, so that it won’t fall on their backs.

It has to be apparent to the county that these handouts will become addictive and increase in size and number every year.

County commissioners: Fight this addiction! Just say “No”!

[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com]

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