A season for giving

This is, by almost any account, the most economically challenging holiday season since the Great Depression. As the unemployment rolls grow by hundreds of thousands, and net worths and 401(k) savings plummet, it may seem reasonable to decide that charity is someone else's responsibility. But now, more than ever, is the time to answer the call of beneficence, whether by donating money or time.

Washington area nonprofits, which provide a safety net for those suffering the most, are reeling from the recession. A recent survey found that four in 10 area nonprofits expect to close down programs or reduce staff in 2009. Four in five philanthropic entities reported a drop in assets from 2007 to 2008. (Regional nonprofits may also have lost as much as $1 billion to Bernard L. Madoff's alleged fraud.) Meanwhile, 44 percent of area nonprofits anticipate an increase in demand for their services in the coming year. In other words, demand for charitable services is greater than ever, while resources are increasingly hard to come by.

Individuals who are interested in giving, but who are not sure where to start, should look through "The Catalogue for Philanthropy: A Guide to Giving, Greater Washington." The catalog highlights some of the smaller but more effective nonprofits in the region. Donors who want to help charities that provide essential services, including food and shelter, should consider giving to the Community Foundation's Neighbors in Need Fund, established in response to the economic crisis. Those who want to volunteer can find ample opportunities through Greater D.C. Cares. The Washington Post also has an awards program for readers who volunteer.

Even in a time of multibillion-dollar bailouts and talk of trillion-dollar deficits, a few dollars in charity, or a few hours of volunteering, can have a significant impact. As former first lady Barbara Bush once said, "Some people give time, some money, some their skills and connections, some literally give their life's blood. But everyone has something to give."

— The Washington Post

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