'Pick-Click-Give' a great way to spur philanthropy

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2010

I have always found Alaskans to be generous, good at supporting worthy causes and taking care of each other. I know many instances where someone without health insurance needed help, and the floodgates of support opened wide.

Nonprofit fundraisers succeed as silent auction bid-sheets fill up quickly, and raffle tickets sell like proverbial hot-cakes. It's somewhat surprising to discover that a review of national philanthropic statistics belies this anecdotal belief in the willingness of Alaskans to part with what is theirs to help others in need.

Alaska ranks near the bottom of the pile in philanthropic giving. Perhaps due to the vast collective wealth we enjoy on the Last Frontier. When compared to our fellow Americans in almost all other states and territories, we give in lower numbers and in lower amounts. We're accustomed to publicly beneficial programs being paid for by the state or large corporations, which is unsustainable and which also denies Alaskans the opportunity to experience the positive personal experience that comes from philanthropy, which literally translated means love for mankind.

Two years ago, the Alaska Legislature created the so-called 'Pick-Click-Give' program to allow Alaskans to allocate part of the annual Permanent Fund Dividend to charity while applying for this perk. The Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska's largest charitable entity, not only supported this effort, but pledged nearly a million dollars to pay for creation and administration of the program, including publicity to put it into the limelight so Alaskans would consider participating.

'Pick-Click-Give' started as a temporary program with a built-in termination date, or 'sunset clause' that will be upon us next year.

This session, the Legislature is considering what to do with the program, and whether to take it on as a state responsibility or let it fall by the wayside. The annual cost to the state treasury to maintain the program would be a little more than $130,000, which has met with opposition from some lawmakers. These doubting policymakers worry that 'Pick-Click-Give' generated "only" a half million dollars for charity in its first year. Some have said it makes more sense for the state simply to allocate this amount directly to the charities as the program generated and be done with it.

That misses the point, moreover, I don't think there's any actual proposal to do this so it's a false comparison.

Firstly, 'Pick-Click-Give' is still quite new, and deserves more time to succeed. About 1 percent of applicants gave in the first year, and it appears that number is poised to double in the program's second year. A 100-percent increase from the first to second year is impressive, and shows that it makes sense to allow the program more time to work.

Earlier this year, there were serious software problems for online applicants, making it impossible for some who wanted to donate to do so. This resulted from not having adequate resources to manage the website, something that needs to be built into the budget so it doesn't happen again.

It is unreasonable and unfair to expect 'Pick-Click-Give' to be an overnight success. It needs time to become familiar to Alaskans, and for the glitches to be worked out. It is eminently possible that within five or ten years, as many as 5 percent of all applicants will donate online to their favorite nonprofits.

In addition to the direct monetary benefits to these groups, Alaskans giving some of their permanent fund dividends experience philanthropy personally, which will hopefully help them learn to be better at giving and supporting worthy causes in other areas of their lives.

As to the need to address the problems that prevented applicants from giving this past January, the powers that be are on top of it. After this year's dividend-application cutoff, all applicants will have the chance to revisit their decision to give or not to give, regardless of when they originally applied. As long as an Alaskan applies by the end of March, come early April there will be a well-publicized window of opportunity during which one can go to the Permanent Fund Dividend website, and 'Pick-Click-Give' for the first time, increase or decrease donations, and give to more or different beneficiaries.

As far as the overall future of 'Pick-Click-Give', an amendment to Senate Bill 171 serves to continue the program if this legislation passes, and it currently is parked in its last committee-of-referral, House Finance. While S.B. 171 has a different purpose altogether (allowing deceased persons' estates to receive dividends applied for after their demise but within the eligibility period) in truth the amendment is more important than the original bill. The number of Alaskans who die awaiting dividends is insignificant in comparison to all of us who remain alive and can and should support what is good and worthwhile in our communities.

I sincerely hope the Legislature will pass S.B. 171 so that Alaskans can continue to learn about the personal and collective benefits of philanthropy. While we are indescribably blessed with abundant public wealth in the Great Land, and most lucky to have entities such as the Rasmuson Foundation picking up the tab for worthwhile programs that are not part of the state's operating budget, there is still a role for each of us to play individually.

'Pick-Click-Give' is an excellent way to inculcate philanthropic behavior and a larger spirit of love for our fellow Alaskans in each and every one of us.

• Ben Brown lives in Juneau.

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