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How Will Charities Fare This Palm Beach Season?

Special to the Palm Beach Daily News

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

If you haven't noticed, the Social Calendar is filling fast. And the bulk of the listings are philanthropic in nature.

Palm Beachers have always been good at giving. The Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce Guide Book lists roughly 50 nonprofit agencies as members, not including churches and synagogues.

Although only about one-quarter have offices on the island, that hasn't precluded residents from giving generously to all. But Americans, wherever they live, have always been good at giving.

Forbes.com recently published its first listing of the world's billion-dollar donors: people who have already given away $1 billion or more -- not just pledged monies to be given after their deaths. Of the world's 793 billionaires, 45 percent live in the United States. Ten of the 14 most generous are Americans.

Bill Gates tops the lineup. He and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have handed out checks worth $28 billion so far. George Soros has given $7.2 billion and Intel founder Gordon Moore $6.8 billion. Warren Buffett has given $6.4 billion and plans to transfer $30 billion in stock to Gates' foundation over 20 years.

SAP co-founder Dietmar Hopp, banker Herbert Sandler and James Stowers of American Century Funds also made the list. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did as well.

An interesting point about these donors made by Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, is that entrepreneurs are more generous than those who inherited their wealth. "They (entrepreneurs) understand they've been very fortunate," Lenkowsky said.

No matter where the donor obtained his wealth, Americans give more than twice as much to charities each year than people living in other countries.

If you're wondering who reaps the most in private contributions, Charity Navigator.org reports that it's religious charities: Of the $306 billion donated in 2007, $100 billion went to them. That said, economic times play a hand in how much is donated each year. If the recession continues, the largest corporations are expected to either decrease 2009 contributions or keep them flat. Gift-giving from individuals remains to be seen.

A Johns Hopkins University study earlier this year revealed the hardest-hit nonprofits last year were those in the arts, such as theaters, orchestras and ballets. On the other hand, of the 363 organizations in the survey, two-thirds reported they were successful in dealing with the economic challenges they faced, whether from reduced giving, increased expenses or delayed government grants.

That kind of good management news says a lot about our nonprofits and could mean donors will be more generous this year than last.

So what kind of charitable season can Palm Beach expect? If those who create the galas, luncheons and festivities are any indication, things are looking fine.

"I've never had so many bookings this far out," says Bruce Sutka, president of Sutka Productions. "My calendar is more booked than ever, and I'm getting calls every day."

Charles Crawford, owner of White Apron Catering, feels the same. "Business was off about 20 percent last year but is looking up. The phone is ringing, and we're getting bookings."

The Ritz-Carlton hosted a handful of galas last season, reporting attendance down a little, but it expects this season to at least remain the same if not improve.

As for The Breakers, it's too soon to call. Joan Bever, director of catering and banquet operations, says, "People are going to continue with their events as fundraising for nonprofits is more important than ever. But we just can't tell yet how the scale will change." She added that charities are taking longer to make gala decisions but that "people seem to be feeling better about the upcoming season." The nonprofits are hoping she's right.


One thing Palm Beach residents learned harshly last season is that not every money manager could be trusted as charitable gifts many thought they were making went up in smoke.

As a result of lessons learned, looking beyond the surface -- be it with those we deal with or charities we give to -- has become more important than ever. That means, before writing that check or transferring securities, do some research.

For those who would like to research the charity(ies) they plan to donate to, advice and information can be found at the following Web sites (listed alphabetically):

On another front, www.palmbeachphilanthropy.org is a Web source that features online and iPod interviews with local charity heads. Two interviews now available at the site include one with Suellen Mann, executive director of the Palm Beach Community College Foundation, and Harvey Oyer III, chairman of the Palm Beach County Historical Society. Upcoming interviews include those with Rocki Rockingham, a board member of the March of Dimes' Palm Beach chapter, and Stacey Dowdle, vice president of the American Heart Association Palm Beach chapter.

To read more articles, please visit the column archive.

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