Howard County prides itself on being a model community, one that is consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the United States.
For those who subscribe to that theory, there are a lot of accolades to back it up. The Howard County Public School System is consistently rated as one of the best in the state of Maryland, which is known as a top provider of public education when compared to other states. The Howard County Library System was named Library of the Year in 2013 by The Library Journal. Earlier this year, the county was rated by Forbes Magazine as the fourth-wealthiest county in the country with a median household income of $108,234.
But according to Beverly White-Seals, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Howard County – a nonprofit that supports other nonprofits within the county – there is one area where the county is coming up short: philanthropy.
"We are known for what we have, but I don't think we want to brag about our level of giving," White-Seals said.
According to a study published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2012, Howard County rated 1,726 out of 3,115 counties in the nation for percentage of discretionary income donated to charities – only 4.3 percent. As a point of reference, Prince George's County rated sixth on the same list at 13.7 percent, despite having a median discretionary income of $31,895, which is less than half of Howard's median of $68,564.
White-Seals said the numbers are even more alarming when you look at total donations. Prince George's County residents donated $704.2 million in 2008, the year used in the study. Howard County gave only $243.3 million.
"We aren't even in the same ballpark," White-Seals said about the comparison between the two counties. "With our wealth, we can do more."
The study also divides giving by ZIP code, which White-Seals says shows an even more alarming trend.
According to the study, the higher the median discretionary income within the county, the smaller the percentage people gave. For example, residents of North Laurel, who have a median discretionary income of $33,140, gave 10 percent to charity; while residents of Glenwood, who have a median discretionary income of $130,532, gave only 3.5 percent.
"The wealthier you got, the less you gave, in very stark numbers. That made me think, why is that so?" she said. "There is something that is just not connecting on why we aren't know for what we give."
White-Seals, who has been presenting the information from the study to groups throughout the county since 2013, has a theory about why Howard County is lagging behind. She says it is not because of a lack of caring, but a lack of awareness.
"We don't know there is poverty because we are so beautifully landscaped," she said. "If you drive from far western Howard County all the way to the Mall in Columbia, all you see are begonias. You never see there are people that are hungry, that there are people that are homeless, that there are people who have their lights cut off, that there are people who have needs, because we are this perfectly beautiful community."
According to the study, Howard County is one of many wealthy communities lagging behind in charitable donations. As part of the study, the Chronicle published a series of articles summarizing key findings. Among them was the revelation that "The rich aren't the most generous."
But White-Seals is hopeful that, in Howard County at least, that can change.
"When I do give the presentation, people don't say, 'I don't care,'" she said. "People are really engaged. They ask questions, they ask why, they ask what they can do. It seems when presented with the information, it resonates."
White-Seals said a 16-member task force has been created to take a look at ways to improve giving. It is made up of representatives from various nonprofits, corporations, religious groups and local businesses.
The task force met for the first time last month and is scheduled to meet again in October. Its goal is simple, to increase philanthropy in the county. But how it does that and by how much has yet to be determined.
"Right now, one of the major things we want to do is put together a video to get the word out," White-Seals said. "Because if nobody knows what the problem is, then the begonias will continue to grow."