This article was updated on January 13, 2015. See our editor’s note.
Faith has long been the primary driver of giving in the South, particularly in Bible-Belt states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, where churchgoers traditionally dig deep when the collection plate makes the rounds every Sunday.
But in fast-growing cities like Atlanta, fundraisers say they are seeing a surge in support for more secular causes like environmental protection, health care, and public education—a shift that has driven a surprising increase in individual giving even as the economy works to regain its footing following the recession.
The city lost more than 200,000 jobs between September 2007 and September 2011; only Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York lost more during the same period. Atlanta was also hit harder than most cities when the real-estate bubble burst, says Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta.
But as the community struggled, Ms. Philipp says, many donors dug deep to make sure that they were helping to take care of those in need. In 2009, when Atlanta hit a low point economically, those who hold donor-advised funds at the community foundation gave out grants totaling $142-million—the largest figure in the foundation’s history.
"Even if it depleted their funds, they needed to get that money out on the street to help causes that were really affected by the recession," Ms. Philipp says.
That attitude helped Atlanta accomplish what many other cities were unable to do during the recession: increase giving.
Federal tax data analyzed by The Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that in Atlanta, individual giving increased by more than $465-million from 2006 to 2012. Atlantans gave roughly 4 percent of their adjusted gross income to charity in 2012, which ranks the city fourth nationally among large metropolitan areas.
A Fundraising Culture
Some of that growth is the result of Atlantans writing checks to help those who were struggling during the recession. But it also stems from what many in the community say is a philanthropic culture that is unlike any other in the South.
While philanthropy in many Southern cities is centered on the church, Atlanta is a outlier. The city is home to five of the nation’s 40 biggest fundraising charities—the Task Force for Global Health, American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity International, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and CARE—all of which are built around secular missions.
Generosity ranking among the 50 largest metro areas
Income given to charity
Change in rate of giving from 2006 to 2012
Atlanta saw the fourth-biggest increase among large metropolitan areas in its giving rate.
"Atlanta is a Southern city that is fueled by a lot of non-Southerners," says Jim Kennedy, chairman of the communications company Cox Enterprises and a donor who supports recreation and open-space projects throughout the Atlanta region. "There is still a lot of faith-based giving, but also the understanding that there are a lot of other things that need support too."
And while Atlanta’s large charities raise the bulk of their funds from donors across the country, their presence has framed the way the community approaches giving, says Christy Butler Eckoff, director of gift planning at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and president of the Greater Atlanta chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
These large charities, all of which have sophisticated development staffs, have helped make professional fundraising practices the norm among other nonprofits in the community.
"There are a lot more people in Atlanta working in development now than ever before," Ms. Eckoff says. "A lot more people are being asked for money and are being engaged in fundraising."
The community also has a deep roster of corporate donors, among them Home Depot, the Coca-Cola Company, and Cox Communications. Those big companies not only contribute to local causes, but they have produced a number of significant individual donors.
One such donor is Mr. Kennedy, who has been one of the highest-profile contributors to the city’s BeltLine project, an effort to create a 33-mile park and multiuse trail on abandoned railway property that rings the city. The project, which is being developed in stages, has received a heavy dose of government and corporate investment, including support from Cox Communications and Kaiser Permanente.
But community leaders say the project would not happen without contributions from individual donors such as Mr. Kennedy. Since April, the BeltLine Partnership—the project’s charitable arm—has already raised $10-million as part of a $12.5-million capital campaign.
"This shows that if you are putting forward something that can change the city and touch people, they are going to be supportive," says Charlie Shufeldt, chairman of the BeltLine Partnership and a senior adviser for Brown Brothers Harriman and Company. "People are so excited about what they see that they believe in it and they want to help."
Mr. Shufeldt says individual donors are being called on to give to the Partnership to support annual operating costs for the park and pay for arts, educational, and recreational programs.
Thirty years ago, when Mr. Shufeldt moved to Atlanta, he says, the Partnership would likely have had to rely on a small circle of donors to shoulder those costs. Today, he says, the culture in Atlanta is different.
"There is a broader base of support out there now," he says. "Back then, it was more concentrated. There was a short list of corporations and foundations that carried the load. Now, they are still there and carrying a big part of the load, but I think there’s a much broader base of support to get things done."
Editor’s Note: In this and other stories on How America Gives, we used ZIP-code data from the IRS to make comparisons between 2006 and 2012, the only years for which income and charitable donation data were available broken out by income and geography. However, to protect privacy, the IRS suppresses some ZIP-code data when there are fewer than 20 filers in a given income group. As a result, some figures are lower than what they’d otherwise be.
Since our original report, we’ve updated our interactive with county-level data for 2012, which do not have any data suppressed. Unfortunately, such data are not available for 2006.
Many of the figures used in this and other How America Gives stories are based on the original 2006 and 2012 ZIP-code data to make those year-over-year comparisons.
For the latest and most accurate 2012 data, see our interactive.