News and analysis
May 01, 2003

How Americans Give

Chronicle study finds that race is a powerful influence

Growing up in Detroit, Shirley A. Kaigler recalls, "if I had a dime, a nickel of it went to the church." Her parents made it clear that giving to the church was a responsibility not to be ignored, no matter how little she had to give.

"We weren't what you would call middle class, really," Ms. Kaigler, 51, says. "My father worked in the Chrysler plants, and my mother was a homemaker. We did not have significant funds."

But, like thousands of other black families in Detroit, Ms. Kaigler's family was very active in the church, which itself was heavily involved in helping the poor.

Today, Ms. Kaigler, a lawyer married to a dentist, has a decidedly easier time making ends meet than her parents did. But her sense of obligation toward helping those who have less is just as strong. She donates to a range of nonprofit groups, does volunteer work for local charities, and puts a lot of hours into volunteering at the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, where "our pastor is quite vocal about community service and outreach."

"I believe that as you're moving forward, you have to have your hand reaching back to help someone else," Ms. Kaigler says.

Detroit Leads the Way

Families like Ms. Kaigler's are a key reason that people in Detroit give a bigger share of their discretionary income to charity — an average of 12.5 percent annually — than residents of the nation's 49 other biggest cities, according to a Chronicle study of giving by people who make $50,000 or more and itemize deductions on their taxes. New York City residents gave the second highest share of income, at 10.9 percent. At the bottom: El Paso, where residents donated 5.8 percent of their income, and Miami, at 4.6 percent.

The study is the first to examine how housing, food, taxes, and other costs of living affect the percentage of income donated to charity — and the first to make it possible to accurately compare whether people who live in high-cost regions, such as New York or San Francisco, are as generous as those who live in low-cost towns like Angleton, Tex., or Rexburg, Idaho.

The Chronicle analysis sheds light on some of the key reasons that people in particular geographic areas give more than those in others. Among the major factors is race: In counties and cities with above-average numbers of blacks who make $50,000 or more, giving rates tend to be higher than in those dominated by whites of similar income levels.

In Detroit, for instance, four out of every five middle-income and upper-income residents are black. And four of the six most-generous large counties in the nation also have more blacks than the typical American county. Those four counties are Prince George's, in Maryland, and three in New York City — the Bronx, Kings (including Brooklyn), and Queens.

One reason blacks have such a significant effect became clear in a second Chronicle study that looked at data on donors of all income levels: Blacks give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charity than do whites. For instance, blacks who make between $30,000 and $50,000 give an average of $528 annually, compared with $462 donated by whites in the same income range.

And just as is the case for Shirley Kaigler, the church is an essential part of black giving. Nine out of every $10 donated by blacks goes to churches or other religious institutions. By comparison, whites give about 75 percent of their charitable donations to religious groups.

80 Percent of Donations

The Chronicle's studies of giving by city, county, and state are based on Internal Revenue Service records of Americans who earned $50,000 or more and itemized their deductions, representing 18 percent of all U.S. taxpayers and accounting for nearly 54 percent of all money earned in the nation. Those taxpayers donated $97-billion to charity, about 80 percent of the total $122-billion donated by all individuals in 1997, according to estimates compiled by Giving USA, the study of charitable giving published by the AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy. Since people who don't itemize don't report their donations, little reliable data are available on people who make less than $50,000.

Demographic data for the study came from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Chronicle also analyzed U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for people at all income levels to determine giving habits by region of the country, class, ethnicity, and educational level, as well as whether they give to religious or secular institutions.

The Chronicle's analyses affirm previous studies showing the major influence that religious giving has in driving donations, not just among blacks, but among all Americans. More than $3 of every $4 donated to charity is given to houses of worship or other religious causes, the Chronicle study found.

Giving rates are highest in the West, where residents donate nearly 8 percent of their discretionary income to charity. Even though Westerners have the highest rate of giving to secular nonprofit groups (donating 2 percent of their discretionary income to nonreligious charities), the largest share of their giving goes to religious organizations (6 percent of discretionary income).

Among the top 20 counties for giving nationwide, 14 in Utah and Idaho contain a large percentage of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. In those counties, people gave 19 percent to 27 percent of their discretionary income to charity, in large part in response to the church's emphasis on tithing.

While religion propels giving in the West, low levels of giving to churches in the East make it the least generous region in the country. People in the East gave 2.7 percent of their discretionary incomes to churches and charities run by them — well below the national average of 5 percent for people who make $50,000 or more. People living in counties in the East gave only 4.2 percent of their incomes to charity. Fifteen of the 20 lowest-ranking large counties are in six New England states.

The least-generous large county was Rockingham, N.H., where residents donated 3.7 percent of their discretionary income to charity.

Residents of the South have the second-highest overall giving rate (7 percent of discretionary income), nearly all of it going to religious groups. Southerners have the lowest donation rate to secular nonprofit organizations in the country, giving slightly more than 1 percent of their available funds.

Fund raisers in Southern states, where the percentage of charitable giving that goes to religious institutions is the highest nationwide — 84 percent — credit churches that encourage tithing, and Baptists in particular, for stimulating giving.

In Hamilton County, Tenn., for example, which ranks No. 11 in charitable giving among the nation's largest counties, donations to churches are the bedrock of all other giving, and help to spur companies and affluent people to give more to charities of all kinds, fund raisers say. "It seems like there's almost a church on every corner," says Peter T. Cooper, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

While religious giving accounts for a big portion of the donations that Americans deduct on their tax forms, not everybody agrees that they should be included in measures of generosity. Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, says that a strong argument can be made for excluding religious donations and evaluating giving by the share of income donated to secular causes.

Much depends on whether giving to religion is considered a mandatory obligation or a choice, he says. "One could say that all religious giving is voluntary, but many people may feel some compulsion to give to their church that is not driven by philanthropy. If you feel you're going to go to hell, or to purgatory, or that you won't get to see Allah if you don't tithe, it makes it seem more compulsory than voluntary."

But he says the overall amount given to charity should probably be used to determine generosity. People in the Northeast "could choose to give an offsetting amount to secular charities, equal to the amount that people elsewhere give to churches," Mr. Rooney says. "But they don't."

Influences on Donations

Beyond religion, the Chronicle study found several other elements that strongly influence charitable giving:

Marital status. Married couples and single women — especially single mothers — are far more generous than single men (whether they are parents or not). High-income men living on their own (those earning $50,000 or more annually) typically donate only about 2 percent of their discretionary income to charity, about one-fifth of what single mothers with similar incomes give.

Employer. Self-employed workers donate more to charity than others. Those who work for themselves gave nearly 70 percent more of their discretionary incomes to charity than did those employed by private companies. Some scholars suggest that might be because the self-employed are running their own businesses and therefore are subject to additional taxes, making them more inclined to seek out tax deductions, including charitable contributions.

Educational level. Better-educated people give higher percentages to charity, regardless of income level. Even when donations to their alma maters are factored out, college graduates at all income levels give two to three times as much of their discretionary income to charity as others.

Role of Blacks

While blacks have become an increasingly powerful force among donors, the Chronicle study is among the first to show how significant a role they play.

Rob Parker, senior vice president of resource development at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, says the findings show that fund raisers who work at charities in urban areas with large numbers of blacks should not overlook their own neighborhoods in searching for donors. "You don't have to go to the suburbs looking for donors," Mr. Parker says. "Don't overlook the very generous folks right around you."

But fund raisers who work in cities and towns that are predominantly black say The Chronicle's findings shouldn't be misconstrued as a sign that blacks represent an untapped resource for mainstream charities.

"Blacks shouldn't be looked at as a new market, or like they're a brand," says Alice Green Burnette, a fund-raising consultant in Palm Coast, Fla. Although U.S. Census figures show that the income of black households has risen by more than 20 percent since 1993, the increase shouldn't be viewed as a jump in disposable assets, she adds. "There's a preacher who says that as soon as black folks get two nickels to rub together, white folks want one," Ms. Green says. "I worry that people in fund raising will see those figures on black giving and start going after black wealth. Blacks don't necessarily have more wealth, just more income."

Over all, city dwellers give lower percentages to charity than those in rural parts of the country, even when cost-of-living differences are taken into account, the Chronicle analysis found. But residents of urban areas give more to secular charities than do those in rural towns. That is especially apparent in the heavily urbanized Northeast and in the urban centers on the West Coast, which have the highest giving rates to secular charities in the country. In the largest urban areas of the West (those metropolitan areas with 4 million or more people), residents donate 2.1 percent of their discretionary income to secular nonprofit groups — the highest rate in the nation. Similar-size regions of the East rank second, giving 1.5 percent of discretionary income to nonreligious charities.

The Chronicle study also found anecdotal evidence that giving rates in an area are often increased by an array of factors, such as the presence of universities, large individual donors, or a tradition of giving by groups of local companies.

In Polk County, Fla., which ranked 50th among large counties nationwide, charity leaders pointed to the positive role played by Publix Supermarkets, a grocery chain in Lakeland.

"They're the role model for giving in this community," says Terry L. Worthington, president of the United Way of Central Florida, in Highland City. The United Way's fund raising has doubled over the last decade. "A lot of that is attributable to Publix and the local phosphates companies," he says.

In Alachua County, Fla., which ranks 27th in charitable giving among large counties, charity leaders point to the University of Florida Foundation, in Gainesville, as the major reason for the high ranking. The foundation, the university's fund-raising arm, received $20-million of its total $179-million in donations from Alachua County residents last year. Much of that giving was to the university's athletic program, some of it to ensure the ability to buy tickets to football games.

In other highly ranked counties, such as Ottawa County, Mich., which is 10th among large counties, and neighboring Kent County (No. 18), the effects of large donations from prominent business executives may account for the high rate of giving.

Entrepreneurial families — such as the Van Andel and DeVos families, founders of Amway and residents of Ottawa County — regularly make large gifts, says Donna VanIwaarden, who heads a philanthropy research center at Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids.

Leaders at some organizations say that while their home counties may rank high in the study, charities still scratch and claw to get by. Some organization leaders say that giving by commuters to their workplaces in other counties or states may also help explain the discrepancy.

In California's Solano County, which ranked ninth among large counties, Gerald O. Forcier, executive director of the Arc-Solano, a charity that helps people with disabilities develop living skills, says his group regularly receives small donations from longtime residents. But many people who work elsewhere in San Francisco and other nearby cities, and moved to the county because of its relatively inexpensive housing, have yet to give to local charities. "I'm having a hard time reaching the new people," he says.