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Stepping up to the plate in hard times

I was stunned when one of my colleagues asked me recently, "How can I make a charitable contribution now, when my revenue is down?" I wondered if not him, then who is to help when the going gets rough?

The ripple effect from the financial meltdown of 2008 has left few untouched, including charitable organizations that serve as safety nets for us and our neighbors when we are most in need of assistance.

So what do I say to my colleague when he turns a deaf ear to the outpouring of need? Perhaps I should say, "Living a life that matters does not happen by chance. It is not a matter of circumstance but one of choice. As health care professionals, we have chosen to live a life that matters and because we have, many individuals have a better quality of life; go to bed without pain; have a beautiful smile; live longer, healthier lives; walk a little taller—we know in our hearts that we have made a difference."

During 2008, donations to charitable causes across the U.S. dropped to $303.65 billion, a 5.7 percent fall from 2007, adjusted for inflation. This was the first decline in current giving since 1987 and only the second decline since Giving USA began reporting on charitable giving in 1956. To add to the pain, investments held by charities nose-dived with the rest of the financial market—a one-two punch that left precious little reserves to support critical charitable programs in 2009.

Our dental schools, which rely healthily on private contributions for scholarships, faculty salaries, operations, capital improvements and a variety of other needs, simply are hard pressed to make ends meet. And little to no relief is expected from state appropriations. In fact, rising unemployment and decreasing sales revenue has caused state legislators to cut funds for schools to the bone.

ADA Foundation programs are being affected, too. The Board of Directors was forced to suspend its allied dental scholarship program for 2009 and anticipates significantly reduced levels of support for access to care grants through the Harris Fund and its dental/minority dental scholarship programs in 2009.

Thousands of children and dozens of dental and allied dental students are at risk of going without support this year, despite having need. An infusion of charitable support is needed this year, and I am proud to report that many ADA Foundation donors are stepping up to the plate and increasing their annual contributions (to these generous donors, let me again thank you!).

Last year, the ADA Foundation provided 70 nonprofit agencies with grants of up to $5,000 each to provide preventive oral health education to avert dental disease that can affect the most basic human needs, including the ability to eat and drink, swallow, maintain proper nutrition, smile and communicate. And it provided $155,000 in financial assistance for some of the country's best dental and allied dental students who have financial need.

These needs are not going away, and albeit with all the other "dominoes" falling those needs are only increasing. Multiply this picture by the 56 dental schools and dozens of dental foundations across the country; you begin to understand the severe reality our schools and organizations reaching out to our most vulnerable populations are experiencing.

I do not have to tell you, the informed leaders of our profession, why a strong dental education enterprise is important or why it is important to protect our most vulnerable neighbors from oral disease when they are down. Our compassion, concern and support ensure the future of our profession, our communities, and most important, our integrity as a profession.

Doing nothing is not a choice. Our dental education has made us the people that we are today. It has allowed us to help, treat and serve patients and has given us a brotherhood in dental education that we are proud to belong to.

Together, we can make a difference. Remember, you only live twice—once in your mind and once with your life. It is up to us, each one of us, to be models of philanthropy and to help achieve something bigger than ourselves. Our connection to each other creates change and improves lives. It does not get any better than that.

Dr. Dugoni is the president of the ADA Foundation and a past ADA president (1988-89).