Opinion | Finance

If you want your donation to make a bigger difference, give local

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

When hard times hit, Americans step up. In fact, 2020 was one of the best years on record for charitable giving. Despite every hardship of the pandemic, we gave about $471.44 billion in 2020 - a 5.1 percent increase from 2019.

I believe Americans are generous because problem-solving is in our DNA. Historian Paul Johnson noted that the story of our country is "essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence." And in my decades of work, I have discovered that low-income communities display these qualities as much as - if not more than - anywhere else. 

Unfortunately, most of Americans' charitable dollars don't always make it into these communities, even if that's what people intend when they give. In fact, the majority of dollars go to large nonprofits such as hospitals, universities, museums and other art-related institutions, or charities for animals and the environment. Too often, even if someone wants to give to improve the lives of the less fortunate in their city or state, they don't know where to turn.

That's why The Woodson Center specializes in identifying and supporting grassroots nonprofits in local communities that have the trust of their neighbors and do effective work. We work hand-in-hand with countless local leaders across the country, too many of whom otherwise would not have benefited from the past year's uptick in donations.  

Since 1998, The Woodson Center has invested more than $50 million in local charities through "mini-grants," funding that has helped countless vulnerable communities reduce crime and violence, restore civic order and revitalize their neighborhoods. 

Grassroots charities can intervene where there's the greatest need, and they often can do so simply and cost-effectively. For example, Angie Dixon founded "Hoop Don't Shoot: Save Our Youth" in Danville, Va. She uses basketball to bring together kids from some of the most challenging circumstances.

The Woodson Center was honored to purchase a washer and dryer so that Ms. Dixon could wash their uniforms and school clothes, as well as to consult with her leadership and board to help the charity build the infrastructure needed for growth. Everyone in the community recognizes that Ms. Dixon has the trust of kids that no one else seems to be able to reach, and yet her organization was still starving for resources. 

The story is the same for other Woodson Center partners, such as Central Union Mission or Project Reclaim. Central Union Mission has been working for 135 years to feed, house and serve the homeless in the Washington, D.C., area. Project Reclaim serves teens and parents by teaching respect, responsibility, leadership and life skills to children considered at high risk for dropping out of school, becoming pregnant as a teenager, or interacting with the juvenile justice system. And the results are stellar because these leaders live in the communities they serve. They don't talk down to the people in their programs; they believe in them, most often because they've been through similar experiences themselves. 

Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, took in just over $90 million in 2020 and has yet to reveal how much, if any, went to improve actual Black lives in low-income communities. But we do know that BLM's co-founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, has done well since founding the group and has indulged in a real estate spending spree, buying nearly $3.2 million in luxury property. (Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation has said she did not use any "organizational resources.") 

And even when larger charities do get to the business of trying to help America's forgotten folks, they often don't have the know-how to be effective. In fact, relationships are the biggest reason that local charities can be more successful: Their leaders are guided by the community and people they serve. They're entrepreneurial at heart, able to quickly respond to changing needs and to the successes (and failures) of their work.

I've learned over decades of service that nearly every solvable problem is a local one. And to solve local problems, we need local leadership. Nonprofits with deep roots in the community can achieve unparalleled success in transforming lives and entire neighborhoods. National organizations too often throw money at a problem and hope something sticks.

So, I want you to think hard about who and what you're funding when you donate to charity this holiday season. Will your money go to empowering lower-income Americans to improve their own lives or will it go toward something that benefits the organization to whom you gave? 

During the holiday season, the "shop local" campaign has become a popular national effort to support small businesses. Well, I'd say the same for charitable work. If you want to make a difference in the world, start with your neighborhood. Give local.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of The Woodson Center and editor of "Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionist and Race Hustlers." Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.