With declining donations year-over-year and a late start, the 2017 Combined Federal Campaign has a tough road ahead. That hasn’t put a damper on the spirit of this year’s honorary chair, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who believes strongly in Americans’ charitable nature – particularly that of federal employees.

Were you aware of CFC before your time in government?

I knew about it, yeah. I didn’t think I would be chairing it.

How did you become the 2017 honorary chairman?

Basically, they asked me, “Would you be willing to do this?” I suspect they were very cognizant of my history of being involved with charitable organizations and pushing charitable causes. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m secretary of HUD, which is the agency of the government’s charity.

What about your past experience prepares you for something like chairing CFC?

For one thing, I started along with my wife a national non-profit, the Carson’s Scholar Fund. Which, everybody said, not another college fund. But it’s actually become very successful: it’s active in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the process of doing that, you become very accustom to how non-profits work – to raising funds, to getting people involved, to understanding what the goals are.

How do you see your role as chair?

I think really to promote the opportunities that exist through all levels of government, from the president’s Cabinet right down to the daily workers, everybody. Help them to understand that this is a tremendous privilege that we have, to give of ourselves and to give of our resources to help our fellow individuals. The Bible says it’s more blessed to give than to receive. This is an opportunity to share in those blessings.

What are you doing to boost participation and raise awareness?

Doing my daily activities as the HUD secretary, which automatically tends to promote involvement. When you’re looking at things like developing affordable housing, you discover that the very best ways to do that involve public-private partnerships.

The private part of that, frequently, is non-profits who have a particular interest in helping people to live in safe, affordable housing. So, automatically, those two things mesh: CFC and what we do here at HUD.

CFC continues to evolve every year. What’s new for 2017?

We have a new web portal, which kind of amalgamates all the programs. Before there were, like, 36 different programs. So, now we truly have a unified federal effort.

We’ve made it extremely easy for people to donate – credit cards, debit cards, checks, whatever. As well as giving on a regular basis with a deduction from pay. That’s actually the easiest way because the amount from each paycheck is not very much but at the end of the year it’s accumulated into a substantial donation, which can be very helpful to a lot of people.

The other thing, we’ve made it possible this year for people to actually donate themselves. They can donate their time to a registered non-profit organization.

And, with military and [federal] retirees we now have a mechanism whereby their annuities can be partly donated to a charity. So, they can participate, as well.

People who want to give have any number of avenues to do so. Why should feds donate through CFC and not some other means?

One of the chief reasons is because it’s easy and because you have such an incredible smorgasbord. It really depends on what’s your interest, what kind of charity would you like to donate to? There are thousands there, so there’s really something for everybody.

Also, with it being all under one umbrella, the cost of operations is much smaller than it would be with multiple different operations. So, you’re getting more bang for your buck; you’re getting more people helped with each dollar you donate.

What would be a homerun for this year’s campaign? Is it hitting the monetary donation goals or something more?

I think a real win would be for everybody who’s working under the federal umbrella to have been asked to give.

Another big win would be for people to actually start thinking about what they can do for others and to start recognizing that we are not each other’s enemies. If we divert our attention to how we can help instead of how we can divide, I think we’ll all be winners.

This year’s campaign got a late start. How will that delay affect this year’s giving?

We did shift the timetable by a month. I don’t think it will matter.

There have been a number of disasters recently, from hurricanes to wildfires. What mechanisms are in place to enable feds to donate toward these efforts or disasters to come?

First of all, you can actually volunteer yourself. If you want to go down to help, a lot of the volunteer efforts for Harvey and Irma and Maria are funded through the CFC, so there’s immediate gratification there.

But, on the website, both locally and nationally, there is a mechanism by which you can donate specifically by hurricane or event or as general disaster relief.

Donations through CFC have declined dramatically over the years. From the people you’ve spoken with, the sense you get, what’s happened to the donation base?

I think a primary problem is, over the last decade or so, people have not felt economically empowered. People are struggling, prices are going up, salaries are stagnant or going down relative to prices. I think once we get the whole economy moving in the right direction and more people feel empowered, that charitable spirit returns.

Now, having said that, even though donations have gone down, we’re still by far the most charitable nation on the face of the Earth. That’s a part of who we are as Americans. Whenever there’s a disaster somewhere, who’s first in line? We are.

I’ll tell you something that’s rather surprising: The United States was the impetus for Socialism. Because Europeans looked over here and they saw the Carnegies and the Mellons and the Fords and the Kelloggs and the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts and said, “You can’t run a country like that, with these very rich people and everybody else. You need an overarching government that receives the funding and redistributes it equitably.” But those people who were saying that didn’t realize that America was different.

All those names that I gave you and more, instead of hording money and passing it down from generation to generation, they built the infrastructure of this country. They built the seaports and the transcontinental railroad and the textile mills and the factories and all the things that allowed us to develop the most powerful middle class the world had ever seen, which rapidly drove our economy to the top of the world.

Thinking about development, thinking about others, thinking about how to use your resources to improve the environment was really responsible for America rising to the top. This is just a smaller portion of that.

So, as the economy picks up, people will be more apt to give. Will that happen this year or in subsequent years?

I think things are already starting to pick up. You look at the joblessness rate, it’s going down. The stock market is going up, which is indicative of something people don’t frequently think about, and that is people’s 401ks, which for the last 10 years have been virtually stagnant, which is why so many people who are retiring are in trouble. The things that were supposed to happen didn’t happen.

Looking at the trends with CFC, based on your experience running a non-profit, what can be done within the organization to stem the tide of losses? Is there a way forward for CFC?

There’s always a way forward. You can look at the trends – what are people interested in – and those are the kinds of things you present up front. And you also find out why people donate and build a database on why people donate. Then you can easily transform what you’re doing to in a way that appeals to more people.

What advice will you give to the next chair?

For one thing, I would say enjoy the fact that you have an opportunity to help people recognize that we’re all in the same boat. And that the more people that we can help, the faster we move in the positive direction.

But I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to tell them in a few months.

Any final thoughts on CFC?

I think we’re going to see a lot of people get involved. People who are federal employees have already put their foot in the water in terms of sacrifice. And I think a lot of them feel very fulfilled in what they’re doing and this is an opportunity to take that fulfillment to the next step.

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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