A Philanthropic Recession

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The New York Times
By: Ben Protess & Kevin Roose
August 31, 2011

Operation Hope built a nonprofit powerhouse over the last decade, spinning a stockpile of donations from Wall Street firms into 27 financial education centers across the country.


But the charitable organization's donor base has retrenched in the wake of the financial crisis. Citigroup's foundation last year cut its giving 60 percent, to $115,000. The ING Foundation delayed paying its $300,000 commitment to Operation Hope. And the CIT Group, a lender that was once one of the organization's biggest benefactors, stopped giving altogether.

''Companies don't realize I've got payroll and lease payments just like they do,'' said John Hope Bryant, who started Operation Hope after spending six years as a banker in Los Angeles.

While Wall Street has slowly returned from the depths of the financial crisis, nonprofit groups that have come to depend on the industry's donations are still struggling. With the global market turmoil and the threat of a double-dip recession, many big banks are clutching their cash or rethinking their giving strategy to maximize their dollars.

The pool of potential donors has not fully recovered, either. Lehman Brothers, which gave $39 million to charity in 2007, filed for bankruptcy a year later. Bank of America, which agreed to buy Merrill Lynch in 2008, gave $208 million to charity last year, according to a recent survey by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. In 2007, the two companies collectively donated $244 million.

Although some stalwarts like Goldman Sachs are giving more, they are also shaking up their philanthropic programs. With banks transferring cash to programs that carry the company name, several charitable partnerships have ended.

The changing nature of Wall Street giving has touched many corners of the nonprofit world. While companies represent a small percentage of overall philanthropy, financial firms accounted for the largest amount of corporate cash donations in 2010, roughly $2.11 billion, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, a group backed by various industries that aim to promote their giving.

The pullback is most problematic for charities with a financial bent, like those that counsel low-income borrowers or train aspiring entrepreneurs. Wall Street has historically been the main source of money for such organizations.

Donations to the Sifma Foundation, which underwrites financial literacy programs for students, dropped in 2009 to $4 million from $4.7 million. With less money at its disposal, the foundation cut its grant-making 36 percent, to $420,000. The foundation is the charitable arm of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a Wall Street trade group.

Although Operation Hope received record donations in 2009, its financing dropped 20 percent earlier this year. In turn, the group had to dig into reserves to float projects that lost financing, lay off 14 people and shut its Boston counseling center in June.

In an era of cost-cutting and layoffs, Wall Street philanthropy is a delicate balancing act. Give too little, and banks are called greedy. Give too much, and it endangers the bottom line.

After emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, CIT had to scale back its charitable donations. While the financial company still maintains a corporate giving department that doles out money to nonprofit groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters, it has ended relationships with several others, including Operation Hope.

''Although we believe it's important to support the volunteer work our employees perform and the philanthropic activities they support, it was a prudent decision on behalf of our shareholders to scale back our corporate philanthropy,'' Curt Ritter, a CIT spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement.

Some banks abandoned or curtailed gift-matching programs, where companies agree to duplicate their employees' donations. Citigroup
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and UBS Wealth Management suspended their matching programs in 2009. UBS reopened the program the next year; Citi's program remains closed.

Other financial firms are cutting fewer big checks to nonprofit groups, a trend that is playing out across the corporate landscape. Morgan Stanley's donations dropped to $46.7 million in 2010 from $54.3 million in 2007, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Bank of America, which pulled back slightly on its charitable efforts during the dark days of the crisis, expects their financing to remain flat this year.

''People are so focused with, 'I want to get paid,' and they're sitting on their cash,'' said Mr. Bryant of Operation Hope, who also serves on President Obama's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, which recommends public policies to support financial education and literacy.

Charities are also competing for money from a donor base that is contracting because of mergers and bankruptcies.

Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a career preparatory program for minority students, was flush with cash in 2006, receiving donations from Bank of America, Merrill Lynch
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and Lehman Brothers. After amassing $10 million, the group bought glittering office space across from the New York Stock Exchange.

Then the tap tightened. Since the Bank of America-Merrill merger, the nonprofit now receives only one, smaller, check from Bank of America. The group's financing from Lehman disappeared altogether after Lehman's bankruptcy.

Support from Lehman also evaporated for Spelman College, a women's liberal arts school in Atlanta. The college never received $7 million of a $10 million grant intended to prepare more graduates for the financial industry, a gift that was announced in October 2007.

Rather than bankroll expensive projects, some financial firms are offering their employees' billable time, reflecting a broader corporate trend. Nonprofits are receiving a flood of so-called in-kind contributions, including volunteers to counsel first-time home buyers.

Over the last three years, Morgan Stanley employees have donated nearly 15,000 hours of pro bono advice to three dozen nonprofit groups, including Episcopal Social Services, which works with foster children and the homeless population in New York. Operation Hope uses 15,000 employees from banks and other corporations to teach financial literacy programs in inner-city schools and offer credit counseling to adults.

While many firms are pulling back, some of Wall Street's healthiest companies are actually spending more on charity. JPMorgan Chase's cash gifts rose to $185 million last year from $104 million in 2009, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy survey. Goldman Sachs gave $315 million to nonprofit groups in 2010, more than four times what it gave the year before.

But even as the strongest banks increase their efforts, some have steered away from supporting multiple miscellaneous causes to focusing on branded initiatives, like the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program or the Morgan Stanley Global Alliance for Children's Health. By creating internal philanthropic projects that prominently feature the company's name, banks can focus their donations and carefully monitor results.

Some financial executives acknowledge that, as with much on Wall Street, the issue of giving often comes down to the bottom line. Firms that counsel banks on their giving programs say that potential employees and clients increasingly ask about a bank's giving programs when applying for jobs or considering where to invest their money. So increasing charitable giving can actually bolster a company's profits.

''It's enlightened self-interest, and there's nothing wrong with that,'' said Rob Densen, the founder of Tiller, a consulting firm that advises major corporations on their charitable giving programs.

Mr. Bryant, sensing an increasingly skeptical donor base, recently reworked his boardroom pitch to highlight the economic benefits of charity.

He now emphasizes how Operation Hope, which runs free classes on money management and aims to raise credit scores through one-on-one counseling sessions, will add to a bank's consumer clients. At an hourlong meeting this year with Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, at the bank's Park Avenue headquarters, Mr. Bryant dug into the sad state of the economy and Operation Hope's financial literacy efforts.

The pitch is starting to pay off. Mr. Bryant, who earns roughly $300,000 a year as Operation Hope's chief executive, says he is close to closing deals with seven financial institutions, which would allow him to hire more people.

''We're going to be just fine,'' he said. But ''not everyone is as resilient as we are.''

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.

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