Wealthier not always more generous givers


Barbara K. Lawson, president and chief executive officer of the Columbia Foundation in Howard County, doesn't have an easy job.

When potential donors come through the organization's doors, convincing them they have money to spare is not the problem - it's convincing them that problems exist in their affluent community.

"We don't get to see a lot of people's hurt," she said, sitting in her Columbia Town Center office, overlooking a large fountain and man-made Lake Kittamaqundi.

Problems such as drug abuse, domestic violence and pockets of poverty are well-hidden. "Yes, you have to work a little harder in this community," she said.

Howard isn't the only county that needs reminding. A recent nationwide study showed that having bigger pockets doesn't mean that people reach deeper. Counties whose residents had higher incomes tended to give smaller percentages of their discretionary income - what's left after paying for essentials such as food and housing - to charity, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a biweekly newspaper for nonprofit groups published in Washington.

"It turned some assumptions on their heads," said Cathy Brill, a consultant for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. "A lot of times people think where there's more wealth, there's more giving."

The trend bears out out in Maryland. Based on information from itemized tax returns, residents of Howard and Anne Arundel counties gave a lesser percentage of their discretionary income to charity in 1997 than the rest of the metropolitan area.

Using 1997 tax returns, The Chronicle of Philanthropy's national study compared average giving to charity by taxpayers who earned more than $50,000. It used Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the cost of housing, food and other essential expenses to calculate surplus funds.

The study found that residents of Baltimore gave 8.7 percent of their discretionary income, whereas in Howard and Anne Arundel people gave the national average, about 6.4 percent - less than Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties.

"There is a kind of U-shaped relationship between income and giving," said Lester M. Salamon, professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies and author of The State of Nonprofit America.

Salamon also is president of the Community Foundation of the Chesapeake, a foundation in Anne Arundel County. He said people at the lowest and highest ends of the economic range contribute more of their money than the middle.

Some researchers expressed caution about giving the study's findings too much weight. The research assumes that "things in relation to each other haven't changed too much in the past six years," Brill said. What was going on during that snapshot in time also is critical.

A correlation exists between the economy and giving, Lawson said. During the late 1990s, "people were feeling real flush," she said. "Even though you didn't have money in your pocket, psychologically, you're feeling, 'Life's been good to me.' "

The study also found that urban communities gave a greater percentage of their funds than rural or suburban. Furthermore, it determined that predominantly black communities gave more than white ones, and that religious communities are a major destination for and conduit of charitable dollars.

The last two factors are reflected in the fact that Prince George's County residents gave the highest percentage of their discretionary income - 16.7 percent. The county ranked sixth among the more than 3,000 counties nationwide compared in the study.

"It was good news," said Desiree Griffin-Moore, executive director of the Prince George's Community Foundation, of the study.

Griffin-Moore said that giving by African-Americans in Prince George's County, especially through African-American churches, probably contributes to the county's national rank.

"My sense is that a lot of the giving represents faith-based giving," she said. "Because many large churches call P.G. home, it didn't surprise me."

Giving to churches supports those institutions and the greater populace, Griffin-Moore said. "They're taking on this responsibility to address some deep issues that affect the community in general," she said.

Based on his research on charitable giving, Salamon said about half of all giving goes to support churches and religious organizations. "In a sense, it is kind of a fixed expense," he said.

This is particularly true in many evangelical churches, where it is considered a duty to give 10 percent of one's income. "One thing that you have seen, especially in African-American churches, is an emphasis on the teaching of tithing," said the Rev. Kerry Hill, pastor of New Chapel Baptist Church in Temple Hills.

The history of African-American churches as providers of services to the community, from child care to universities, also plays a role.

St. Paul Baptist Church in Capitol Heights is an example of this tradition. Since the church was founded in 1866, it has become involved in social and religious action, said the Rev. Bob Williams, the pastor.

"The records reflect that back then, they began pooling resources and lending money to other former slaves," Williams said, starting a barbershop and a life insurance union.

"What we do now is really a carryover of the original mission of the church," he said.

His and other churches in the area have become more sophisticated in their efforts to address social issues.

Several churches, include St. Paul, have established community development corporations to build housing for seniors and low- to moderate-income residents, paid for not by offerings but through grants and government assistance. However, St. Paul does help with salaries of some staff members of its corporation and with other expenses.

But religious giving is also a basis for giving elsewhere. Many of the more generous donors to the Columbia Foundation have a strong connection to their faith. "They say, 'My life has been blessed,' " Lawson said.

But fund raising in wealthy Howard County, where the average price of a new single-family home is more than $300,000, remains a challenge.

Education is the answer, said Lawson, whose foundation helps people plan charitable giving as well as awards grants to support local needs. Despite the recent economic downturn, the foundation has established "giving circles" to allow donors to pool funds for a common interest.

Until she helped found the circle, Yolanda Bruno said, she would regularly give to organizations that helped women and girls, but she was not supporting any particular plan or goal.

In addition, her charitable donations haven't increased with her income.

She never gave more because no one asked. "I just think women like myself are so unused to giving," she said - particularly in larger amounts.

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