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Giving When It Hurts

As the state and county continue to cut funding for social services and cultural organizations, why not give the gift of membership to a group that makes this region a great place to live?

Every year at holiday season you get exposed to media stories kind of like this one. They’re all pretty much the same, and they go sort of like this: “Unemployment is high. Many of our neighbors are struggling to make ends meet. The [fill-in-the-blank organization] is partnering with the [fill-in-the-blank group] to reach out a helping hand to those among us who are most in need. Here’s how you can help.” The goal, you discover as you continue reading, or watching, or listening, is to raise X number of dollars for food and toys. Then, if the story touches you as it was intended to, you reach for your checkbook.

The sad reason these stories are as evergreen as a Christmas fir is because they are true, year after year. Those who are in need in our community never go away. Therefore, donations to organizations like the United Way, Catholic Charities, and many of the smaller groups like Friends of the Night People are always gratefully welcomed.

But this year, even more so than in the past, there are groups that are suffering in our midst. They struggle year after year to improve the quality of our lives by fighting for fairness, or by preserving the lessons from our collective past, or by offering beautiful statements that help to expand our level of compassion and understanding. Without them, the gray realities of our lives would remain uncolored by hope.

Of course, I’m talking about all the cultural and social justice organizations that have seen their funding slashed this year. These groups are taken for granted year after year, and for many it’s a miracle they’ve been here at all, considering what they’ve had to work with. And as they look at the books at the end of 2009, many must be feeling like a wounded soldier coming to grips with the realization that the medics have just carried them away from the triage tent without treatment. But here’s how you could be their Florence Nightingale without blowing your entire holiday budget.

Let’s say you have a friend who likes art. Last year, maybe you bought him a coffee table book with some Chares Burchfield paintings in it. This year, why not buy him a landmark membership to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center? Not only have you just become a bit of a philanthropist to the museum, but you’ve also sprung for his free unlimited admission to the museum, along with invitations to members-only previews of museum exhibitions, invitations to special members-only programs and events, discount rates on lectures, workshops and educational programs, a subscription to the Burchfield Penney newsletter, and a 10 percent discount on Museum Store purchases. Guess what, big spender? The rate for an individual membership there was just reduced from $45 to $30. He is moved by your thoughtfulness, the museum is moved by your support, and you, clever Christmas shopper, have just killed two birds with one stone. Move down the list.

What about that friend of yours who spends all spring and summer out in the yard spinning her compost tumbler and planting those new clippings she’d nursed in the window box through the harsh winter? Is a chia pet and a poinsettia going to move her the way a membership to the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens will? Forty dollars makes her a member for a year, gaining her free admission at her will and the opportunity to take four friends there for free. Also, she gets discounts on events, classes, trips, and exhibits. Throw in a 10 percent discount in the gift shop and their Great Plant Sale, plus seasonal mailings and invites, and reciprocal benefits to over 200 gardens and arboretums. The Botanical Gardens will appreciate your generosity, and think of the warm feelings she’ll have for you, walking into the lush, green place this February. Meanwhile, your reputation as a philanthropist continues to grow. Win, win, win.

How about a membership to PUSH Buffalo—People United for Sustainable Housing, the group whose good works you read about in the newspaper week after week? How about a membership to the Albright-Knox, Squeaky Wheel, or Just Buffalo Literary Center? Consider buying a friend a membership to Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, a cultural resource that consistently places Buffalo on the international map among fine arts cognoscenti but which must scrap for funding in this dismal economic climate.

There are cooperatives, too, like the Lexington Co-op and Urban Roots; these appear to be everyday businesses but they need members to survive.

You could give a friend a package of tickets to the Irish Classical Theatre or Buffalo United Artists (or, if you’re loaded, a season’s subscription). You could give tickets to BPO holiday shows.

There are plenty of options. In fact, there is scarcely a not-for-profit in our community that has not felt the pain of state budget reductions and the county’s withdrawal of financial support. Consider using your gift-giving dollars to help them to continue to make Western New York a better place to live.

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