By Paula J. Owens
We may have good ole’ Yankee ingenuity and New England pride, but when it comes to charitable giving, a recently released study says New Englanders are just plain stingy.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s study on the generosity of Americans released last week found that residents in states where religious participation is high, especially in the South, gave the greatest percentage of their discretionary income to charity. In the Northeast, where there is generally lower religious participation, people gave the least to charities, the study found, with the six New England states falling to the bottom of the list among the 50 states.
According to the study, Massachusetts ranks 48 out of 51, which includes the District of Columbia, based on percentage of income for all contributions, including religious.
Churches are among the organizations counted as charities in the study and the religious practice of tithing — a practice that requires followers of a faith to contribute a certain percentage of the their income — may skew the numbers, but, interestingly, when only secular giving is considered, some of the states at the bottom of the list rise to the top.
Nonprofit organizations in Worcester County say they just aren’t seeing what the study suggests.
Ann T. Lisi, director of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation for 22 years who works with donors and nonprofits in the region, said people in the area are extremely generous. The nonprofits she works with may see ups and downs in their ability to raise money, but there are steady increases, she said, when you track donations long-term.
“Even despite difficult economic climates, people tend to give, and it increases year after year,” Ms. Lisi said. “It is not specifically tied to the economy or unemployment rate. It makes you think you can weather a storm.”
Looking at the generosity index that indicates giving as a percentage of a person’s capacity to give, if faith-based contributions to churches, mosques and synagogues are taken out of the equation, it changes the philanthropic landscape tremendously, and Massachusetts ranks 14 out of 51, which includes the District of Columbia, according to the study.
“If you factor out giving to one’s religious organization, New England and Massachusetts rise to the top again — just that in itself is a worthwhile statement,” she said. “It is an important variable to consider. Certainly we don’t want to feel bad about our region as ungenerous, and I find that very encouraging. It makes you feel better. We’re humans and we want to think of ourselves as generous people.”
William A. White, spokesman for the North Central Massachusetts United Way, says if volunteer hours were counted in the study, North Central Massachusetts would debunk the stats in the study.
“We have one of the largest Day of Caring in the state and our Community Builders volunteer center is remarkable,” Mr. White said. “North Central Massachusetts debunks the statistic in the study on the number of hours of volunteerism in the 19 communities in our territory.”
Additionally, he believes charitable giving is higher in the area than the study indicates.
“Based on our experience in North Central Massachusetts, the ranking seems low,” he said. “We’ve done extremely well with charitable giving in our communities. Folks are very giving.”
Warner S. Fletcher, who serves as a trustee or board member of more than a dozen family foundations and nonprofit organizations in Worcester, said the information in the study is nothing really new.
Factors that drive people to charitable giving are important factors to consider, says the 67-year-old attorney who grew up in one of the city’s leading philanthropic families. His mother’s charitable trust was one of the first established in Worcester and is one of the largest now. “There are a number of factors involved in why people give,” Mr. Fletcher said. “In New England, generally religion is not as all-encompassing as it is in other areas. For people living in Worcester, a lot of things are important to them in their lives, and their social network just isn’t the church, if they go. In terms of relative need of importance, the church is lower.”
For families who have lived in Worcester for two or three generations or more, they may choose to give to charities that invest in the community, he said.
“If only secular contributions are considered, states described as stingy come out pretty well,” he said. “But, a commitment to faith-based charities clearly does result in a higher percentage of giving.”
Raymond L. Delisle, spokesman for the Diocese of Worcester, said if anything people’s generosity has grown.
Though the church has not yet met its annual Partners in Charity goal of $5 million this year, Mr. Delisle said the church doesn’t feel it is a reflection of people’s generosity. In 2010, the church’s goal of $4.8 million was met, he said, but the goal was increased in 2011 and 2012 because of an increase in need resulting from the downturn in the economy.
“With the downturn in the economy, people who normally have participated have not been able to, and others who can afford to have stepped up to the plate and increased their gifts, and new donors keep coming,” he said. “The fact that we’re not hitting our highest goal ever in a difficult economy is not necessarily a reflection of generosity. We’ve had to set higher goals because of the greater need due to the bad economy — the same economy that has made it a struggle to raise higher than we’ve ever raised in the past.”
He added, “We still see a very generous donor base here in Central Massachusetts.”
With about a week left in the annual appeal, about 95 percent of the $5 million goal has been raised. The appeal is short by about $300,000.
“It has been fairly steady over the past six or more years. If anything, there has been an influx of new donors. The problem with national studies is they are looking at donations in isolation.”
Mr. Delisle said an interesting statistic would be to look at a combination of donations and taxes. Moreover, the study doesn’t really quantify the full generosity of people, such as helping out a neighbor where there is no tax relief involved.
“Where would Massachusetts be then in terms of the rest of the country?” he said. “In our state, we fund a lot programs through taxes that many states simply do not fund. They are expecting and their tradition is that churches and nonprofit organizations have been providing a lot of those services.”
In Massachusetts, he said, residents feel as though they provide a core set of social services through tax programs and look to the church and charitable organizations to catch the people who fall through those safety nets.
“Church organizations in particular, and certainly our own, run with very low overhead costs and the majority of donations go right to services and people are willing to support them,” he said. “The real issue for any individual boils down to the simple matter of if it is within their means to do the kind of good they want to be doing through a combination of donations and taxes. We leave it to everyone’s judgment on how to do it on their own.”
Maj. Thomas S. Babbitt, from Worcester’s Main Street Salvation Army church, said he feels that New Englanders are not stingy, but just more cautious where their money goes.
“I don’t really think the study reflects that northerners are stingier, just more careful where they put their money,” Maj. Babbit said. “I think our donors are aware of our mission and many give because they know we do not discriminate in delivering services to people in
Richard A. Jakious, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network in Boston, said the study should be taken with a grain of salt.
There are more than 25,000 nonprofits in the state, he said, employing about 500,000 people or 16.7 percent of Massachusetts’ workforce.
“I don’t think that any nonprofit executive in Massachusetts is kept up at night worrying about how their fundraising compares to organizations in Utah,” Mr. Jakious said. “They’re thinking about how to improve the social safety net, care for our sick and elderly, and how to protect our environmental, cultural and historical treasures.”
He said all forms of philanthropy should be considered.
“New Englanders aren’t stingy by any measure — they give an abundance of their time, talent and treasure to nonprofit organizations,” he said. “But, we can do more and should see this study, not as an opportunity to divide and point fingers, but as a call to action.”