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As someone who works in the field of philanthropy, I am asked every day about how charitable giving is affected by our current economic recession. It always heartens me to be able to say that, over the past 30 years, philanthropy has not declined during economic recessions. It has held steady or even increased -- this represents the hope and spirit of philanthropy. We realize that our communities and those in need suffer more during an economic downturn, and our response as community members is to give more.
The holiday season holds different meanings for different faiths, and giving is one of the only common virtues that unify these beliefs. Charitable giving is one of the obligations of a full life, according to the Quran. Charity is one of the six requisites of Buddhist discipline. Judaism has a long history of reinforcing charity; in fact, the Hebrew word for righteousness is the same as the Hebrew word for charity. Humanists view charity as an essential virtue. Christians view Christ's very life and teachings as a gift and sacrifice. And there are countless other examples.
Increasingly, the global community is seeking ways for diverse faiths to coexist in tolerance. I think that charitable giving does much more than allow us to coexist. It allows us to express our faith in common ways -- it is the best expression of the human soul. During the holiday season, we are constantly reminded of how wonderful it feels to give.
The essayist Stephen Fry writes that the three most beautiful words in the English language are not "I love you," but "please help me." They are words of hope that show that we can call on each other to care for each other.
Many Vermonters will be cold or hungry or living on the edge this winter. The economic crisis is already affecting people from all walks of life. Low- and middle-income Vermont families are finding it impossible to keep up with the growing costs of basic needs such as food, heat, shelter and transportation. At the end of November, more than 40,000 households had applied for fuel assistance, an increase of 25 percent from 2007. Food shelves are also struggling to meet the rising demand in their communities. Some have had a 25 percent increase in families visiting this year compared to last year, and the cost of food has risen 20 percent.
I hope that we will all consider giving a little more this year -- whether to a favorite charity or of our time. Our current economic downturn is an opportunity for us to act on the true spirit of caring that unites us all.
Peter Espenshade of Shelburne is vice president for community philanthropy for The Vermont Community Foundation