Donors across America stepped forward in 2009 to avert a potential crisis in the not-for-profit community and exceeded the wildest expectations of many. At the same time, giving was down slightly, and certain critical needs went unfunded due to a shift in donor priorities, as well as the inability of many nonprofits to make a compelling enough case for their cause. Many organizations in Jewish arenas cut back on staffing and programming, and nearly all delayed transformational construction and renovation.
Yet we remain optimistic, even bullish, about what dedicated and creative charitable people -- coupled with nonprofit professionals and volunteers -- can accomplish, even under the most daunting circumstances.
Our optimism comes from the Giving Institute and the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University, which last month reported that U.S. charitable giving totaled $303.75 billion in 2009, almost equaling the support seen in 2007 and 2008 -- the best years in giving ever. Despite continued economic difficulties, donations declined only 3.6 percent overall.
When the Giving Institute released its seminal report, Giving USA, many people were amazed. As consultants who are members of the Giving Institute and also involved with interpreting the Giving USA www.givingusa2010.org  data, we were pleased by the promising picture the report painted.
While these statistics do not isolate Jewish giving, Jewish philanthropic behavior in American is assumed to be consistent with the nation as a whole. Thus, the findings -- and their implications -- are pertinent for our local community.
From the report, we see that Americans noticeably shifted their priorities last year. The human-services, health and international-aid sectors all experienced increases in support. Other sectors experienced some decline, including the arts, education, gifts to foundations and public-society benefit, such as the umbrella campaigns of United Way and Jewish federations.
For the first time in the 55 years that Giving USA has tracked donations, religion -- the largest sector of charitable dollars -- saw a tiny decrease of .7 percent.
The data should be a wake-up call for nonprofit professionals, volunteers and donors about the need to reposition themselves in this new climate. In learning from the hyper-challenges of 2009, Jewish nonprofits must:
· be crystal-clear in their missions and purposes;
· show that their organizations continue to work hard to achieve Jewish goals and make an impact;
· infuse their organization with more communication and a large dose of optimism;
· create or expand endowment funds, as this is the only true way to build financially solid organizations that are less vulnerable to economic fluctuations; and
· go beyond existing approaches to demonstrate how they provide impact to individuals in need, while also promoting the perpetuity of the Jewish people.
Case in point: The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia changed some longstanding allocations approaches, with weight given to an agency's or program's ability to successfully meet the needs of the community.
These times test our mettle. Hopefully, decision-makers will be motivated to consider options and innovations, and to make strategic decisions that will sustain their organization's capability, despite external challenges, to achieve their missions and focus on the future.
Even though our Federation's receipts reflected reduced giving last year -- as did almost every other Jewish federation in North America -- people responded to important human needs, but in different ways. Limited fiscal resources were stretched, but donors responded -- perhaps not in ways that they had previously, but in ways they believed appropriate. More and more nonprofits are considering ways to attract support, including offering targeted-gift options, or highlighting restricted program and endowment support.
Another unfortunate reality is that giving lags behind other major cities. Relatively recent studies show that per-capita giving here is less than in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit and Cleveland. But data shows that the resources exist within our own community to provide the dollars necessary for almost any legitimate cause -- Jewish or otherwise.
Robert Evans, founder and managing director of EHL Consulting, and Avrum Lapin, partner and director of the firm, work with dozens of nonprofits across the globe.