On Nov. 15, philanthropists give to each other

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Even the most savvy presidential trivia buffs might be stumped by this factoid: Who signed the proclamation that designated Nov. 15 as National Philanthropy Day?

For those who didn't consider Ronald Reagan among the possibilities, there's good reason: Right after his Nov. 14, 1986, announcement at the Old Executive Office Building that there would be an annual observance of charitable donors and their good works, Mr. Reagan changed the subject of his speech to the headline-grabbing Iran-Contra affair.

Despite getting lost in the other breaking news that day, National Philanthropy Day survived and has been marked relatively quietly for the last quarter century in fundraising circles. Typical events are breakfasts or banquets that honor community philanthropists ranging from school-age volunteers to well-heeled benefactors.

In Pittsburgh, the Association of Fundraising Professionals' Western Pennsylvania Chapter tonight will present awards to eight individuals or organizations that have made significant philanthropic contributions to the region.

"We feel it's important to honor people in front of their peers and celebrate their accomplishments," said Helene Conway-Long, vice president of institutional advancement at The Children's Institute of Pittsburgh and co-chair of the event to be held at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel Pittsburgh.

Approximately 100 events are planned throughout North America either today or sometime this week, said Michael Nilsen, vice president, public affairs, for the national organization based in Arlington, Va.

Not all of those involve handing out awards, though. At Penn State, the university will mark its second annual Day of Philanthropy with fundraising appeals and other events at University Park and other campuses in the state. At the main campus, a dozen student groups will occupy tables at the Hetzel Union Building where they will provide information on their charitable works and discuss the significance of charitable giving.

Besides the student activities, the school sent a postcard appeal to 110,000 existing donors asking them to contribute on the Day of Philanthropy.

In its inaugural run of the PSU Day of Philanthropy a year ago, Penn State used emails and direct mail to target 50,000 alumni who had not given to the school for at least seven years, or had never made donations. The effort raised just over $80,000, said Mark Rudloff, associate director, annual giving.

Though the November 2011 event fell just days after revelations surfaced about the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal -- news that raised questions about the university's administration and whether the school could recover from an onslaught of negative publicity -- "We still did well," said Mr. Rudloff. "We went to our core mission: raising money for student support and that message resonates with our alumni."

Even without such image problems, nonprofits across the board face fundraising challenges because of the ongoing economic recovery and possible changes to federal tax laws that could reduce the benefits for taking charitable deductions.

Charitable contributions in the U.S. grew by 4 percent last year to $298.4 billion, according to an annual report by the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

But while money is still being poured into charitable coffers, a recovery in donations is occurring at a slower post-recession rate than following any recession since 1971, said Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy.

Mr. Nilsen projected it will take a decade to reach the levels of charitable giving in place before the recession started in 2007. "We've seen very flat levels of growth in the last year or two and demand continues to go up, especially for social services."

In the local region, "People want to be generous and are looking to be generous, but at the same time there is still a lot of uncertainty with the economy that is causing donors to take longer to make up their minds about the gifts they make," said Karen Galentine, vice president for university advancement at Carlow University and president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals local chapter.

"Pittsburgh is really a philanthropic community. But some people may be reducing the number of organizations they support. Maybe in the past they supported 10 and now they're supporting only five but they're still being generous. They haven't stopped giving entirely," she said.


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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