Doubt, Despair, and Charity

No confidence in nonprofits.


Even as public confidence in government institutions has skyrocketed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, faith in charitable organizations has dropped precipitously, according to a recent Brookings Institution study.

The report, which relies on surveys conducted by the Center for Public Service, found that "the percentage of Americans who said they had 'a lot' of confidence in charitable organizations fell from 25 percent in July 2001 to 18 percent in May 2002 while the percentage who said they had 'none' rose from 8 percent to 17 percent." The study's author, Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, attributes the change to numerous scandals at high-profile nonprofits such as the United Way, the Red Cross, and the Nature Conservancy, as well as charities' generally lackluster response to 9/11.

But while Light sees this new distrust of charities as a problem, nonprofit critic Theresa Funiciello, author of Tyranny of Kindness (Atlantic Monthly Press), regards it as long overdue. "After 9/11," she says, "people got a close look at how these institutions operate. After the first or second generation, most of them have lost sight of their original purpose; the money coming in goes to perpetuate and serve the interests of the institution."