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If money's tight, those who care can still help by volunteering


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POSTED: Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anybody reading this surely understands the dire condition of our national and local economies. This newspaper has published a number of guest columns detailing the funding problems that many of our nonprofits currently face. Our community hasn't seen this kind of hardship for many years.

We're in uncharted waters.

Nonprofits' finances have been threatened by the diminishment of state funding programs, which in more flush times provided grants. Until the economy collapsed, about two-thirds of the revenue in the nonprofit sector was derived from government sources. The growing trend for government providing so much support for nonprofits is no accident.

Over the years nonprofits has become increasingly responsible for helping our community with goods and services that government is simply not in a position to provide.

Our organization, Hospice Hawaii, is a perfect case and point. We're committed to bringing hospice and palliative expertise to the bedside, ensuring that a family's loved one receives the highest standard of care. This is a special role that combines social work, health care and even spiritual guidance — all practiced in a client's own home. It's not a task that can be easily replicated by government or even a hospital.

What's more, it's work that is vital to the community. Unlike some nonprofits that serve only the needy, we work with every social demographic imaginable — from the privileged classes to the homeless.

As nonprofits face greater financial challenges, the needs of Hawaii's people have never been greater. With many of our neighbors losing jobs and facing ever-dwindling savings accounts, more families will need outside agencies to help them with food, health care, housing and other necessities.

In better times most of us would quickly write a check or put extra cash in the calabash. Nowadays that might not be possible. Many families, for good reason, have tightened their purse strings — even when it comes to contributing to our favorite charities. This is something that all directors of nonprofits understand.

The problem is that financial downturns ripple through our entire community: At a time when government largesse diminishes, large firms might (and often do) feel it is necessary to reduce their charitable support as well. At the same time, many of the employees of those companies can find it too demanding to continue their own charitable efforts.

So what can we do?

Helping your neighbor doesn't mean just “;giving at the office.”; On the contrary, if you can't write a check you can volunteer your time.

I think it's wise to take a cue from President Barack Obama, who said in a speech last July 4 that every person needs to consider how they can contribute “;to our most pressing national challenges”; — whether in the military, overseas or just next door.

Every hour you volunteer for a nonprofit is an hour that frees them from hiring someone to do the same job. This goes double if you're a professional, such as an attorney, accountant, bookkeeper or even an IT person. Your skills are particularly needed. With your assistance, a nonprofit can concentrate on its mission and leverage its precious financial resources.

Our own organization, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, owes a tremendous debt to our volunteers. These are the people in our community who provide comfort and support to terminally ill patients and their families. They offer compassion, love and healing that no amount of money can buy. We need their volunteerism in good times and bad.

As our greater ohana faces a very difficult time, your favorite nonprofit or charity needs your skills more than ever. Maybe it's time to give them a call.

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Kenneth L. Zeri is president of Hospice Hawaii.