by Cara Gardner

The polished brass bowl passed around the church pews on Sunday morning brings in a lot more money than you might think. Tithing and donations to religious charities account for 80 percent of all monetary giving in the United States, including the majority of giving here in Washington state (even though it is the second-most "unchurched" state in the country, surpassed only by Oregon). Americans are a generous lot, giving a total of $241 billion to charities in 2003, up almost 3 percent from '02.

"I think we're seeing the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel," says Joyce Cameron, president of the Inland Northwest Planned Giving Council, which acts as a resource regarding the latest trends in planned giving. Cameron describes the past few years as "the worst I've ever seen," when it comes to support for charities, the arts and other nonprofits. Like Cameron, others in the nonprofit sector insist this figure is a sign of good things to come. But Peter Jackson, president and CEO of Foundation Northwest, the community foundation that creates charitable funds from philanthropist gifts, cautions that just because overall donation dollars have risen doesn't mean more people are giving.

"These studies don't break down where the money is coming from," Jackson explains. "What Bill Gates donates changes the national figures."

The $241 billion figure includes Gates, as well as all the corporations, institutions, foundations and major estates, which give based on a different set of rules and motivations than the average American donor.

So who is the average American donor? You might be surprised. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a major news source for the philanthropy sector, recently released a study that reveals low-income people give proportionally more, based on their capability, than the middle-rich. Likewise, blacks give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charity than whites do; single women give more than single men.

The studies examined how costs of living affect the percentage of income donated to charity. It was the first of its kind to look at whether residents of high-cost regions, like Seattle, are as giving as those in low-cost regions like Bonner County, Idaho. Spokane County falls somewhere in the middle of the nation's most generous and least generous communities. Residents in Spokane County, on average, donate about 6.5 percent of their discretionary income to charity; residents in Kootennai County donate a little less than 6 percent.

"This is a very generous community when it comes to checkbook philanthropy," says Jackson. "Look back to 9/11. Support here per capita was greater than Seattle's, and possibly even more in the dollar amount. When it comes to crises, Spokane is generous."

But what about sustainable giving? The prototype of that kind of donor is a low-income black woman who is a member of a church in Detroit. Out of the 50 biggest U.S. cities, the people of Detroit give the most to charity (New York ranked second). The study showed that cities with the highest percentages of blacks in the middle to upper-middle class were the most generous. Yet people of all races have the same tendencies once they hit a gross income of $200,000 to $500,000 a year. The "middle-rich," according to the Chronicle, give the least of all socio-economic groups.

"There is a perceived lack of security," notes Jackson, discussing theories on why there is a dip in giving trends among the middle-rich, compared to the generosity of their uber-rich and middle- and lower-income peers. "How much are they leveraged? Charitable contributions are a part of discretionary income. Charity is the first to go when the bills go up," Jackson says. Instead of selling the extra car when gas prices rise, people often axe their annual contributions to nonprofits. Disposable income has gone down in the last 20 years, but material positions have skyrocketed. So has debt.

Trends in philanthropy are hard to track, and it's difficult to detail the course of a complicated industry in the space of one article. But the basic outlines are clear: The need is great and the giving could be better. How the national stats mirror our community here in the Inland Northwest, though, is hard to say.

"I see a lot of [middle-rich] people giving," says Cameron, who is also the director of development and communications at the Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture. "In our community, those are some of my best givers. That may be a nationwide trend [that they don't give as much], but I don't believe it's a local trend." Wealthier people donate far more to the arts -- supporting museums, opera houses and theater productions -- than any other demographic.

Giving to charity is a choice, but with 80 percent of giving going toward religious charities, it's easy to see that many people feel a strong obligation to donate; guilt is a driving force, but for the most part, people are truly altruistic. Though Spokane's typical donor isn't a churchgoing black woman, Jackson says that here in the Inland Northwest, we mirror the national data in some important ways.

For instance, both Cameron and Jackson agree with the national trend that the nonprofit sector is having a hard time getting the baby boomers to volunteer.

"There's a lot of people who've retired [and] who lost a lot of money in the stock market who are now having to be consultants or go back to work," Cameron says. "They're not able to volunteer a lot. It's a challenge to get people in the door."

It's also proving to be a challenge to get their money, too.

"[Older couples] historically are the people who can give, and they no longer do," Jackson agrees. "They live on more of a fixed income. Prescription drug costs are huge. People are living longer and need more money. Medical care is more expensive. They fear they don't have enough to last them."

Charity is a powerful force throughout America, and philanthropy trends are often looked at as a microcosm for what's happening with the collective conscience. Jackson says that charity, more than any other part of American life, exemplifies how everything is connected; as it says in the Bible and in proverbs from almost every culture, what we give has everything to do with what we'll yield.

"There has to be a realization that everything is connected to everything else," Jackson says. "When I'm old and in a nursing home, it's [the younger generation] who will provide my care and make the laws and rules regarding the world I live in. I care whether they are healthy, well educated and in a position to help. And there are a lot fewer Gen Xers than there are of us [baby boomers]."

Publication date: 08/05/04

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