America's charities going bankrupt at an alarming rate


We're all guilty of it. When our finances shrink, donating money is bumped to the bottom of the To Do list. Charities have found themselves at the bottom of the financial food chain, precisely at a moment when people in our society are more vulnerable than ever.

The New York Times reports that although no one's keeping exact figures, there's no question that charities are falling like timber across the scorched landscape of our economy. Non-profits already operate on the razor's edge of liquidity, in a domino situation where one mishap or failure by a trusted partner can sink the whole enterprise. If a charity entered into 2008 with any sort of financial trouble, it's unlikely to leave 2009 at all.

It's not just small-time non-profits that are crumbling. Big ones are on the bubble, too. As investment funds teeter, so do the foundations that use them to produce their annual operating budgets. A number of high-profile foundations, including Elie Wiesel's Foundation for Humanity and Steven Spielberg's Wunderkinder Foundation, were swindled by the Bernard Madoff mess. (In fact, some experts suspect that Madoff specifically targeted charitable foundations to keep his scheme going.) Yeshiva University lost $110 million of its endowment, and other universities were also slammed. Even Girls Scout cookie sales, a principal source of the Girl Scouts of America's funds, plummeted an estimated 19%.

Among the non-profits declaring bankruptcy are centers to support outcast gay and lesbian youth, domestic violence havens, low-income housing groups, retirement communities, and rape crisis centers. In other words, the kinds of places that victims of this recession are most likely to need. When we have more takers than givers, whole enterprises can implode.