by James A. Bacon
I had always thought that Virginians were more charitably inclined on average than other Americans, but apparently that’s not the case. Data published in Old Dominion University’s “State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2015” report indicate that Virginians give a considerably smaller percentage of their income to charity (presumably as measured by itemized charitable deductions in tax filings) than do Americans overall. Hampton Roads residents buck the trend, contributing significantly more than the state average of 2.85% of income — though still below the national average of 3.7%.
“It is certainly notable that Portsmouth, a city whose residents are much less prosperous financially, nonetheless more than doubled Loudoun County in terms of the percentage of residents’ income given to charitable endeavors,” states the report, whose lead author is ODU President Emeritus James V. Koch. “This suggests a degree of anomie and lack of identification of Loudoun County residents with their surroundings.”
Koch raises an interesting point. I would go a step further and suggest a hypothesis that Koch, who has amassed an enormous database of local- and metropolitan-level statistics, perhaps could test: The longer people have lived in an area and the more they have sunk their roots there, the more likely they are to contribute philanthropically. Many of Loudoun County’s residents are newcomers who have yet to develop strong ties to their communities. To cast that statement in the form of a testable hypothesis, I would predict a strong correlation between the average length of residence and the rate of migration in and out of a locality and/or a metropolitan region and the proclivity of the population to give to charity. That is not the only factor influencing the rate of giving, but it would be an important one.
By this logic, the charity-mindedness of Hampton Roads actually may be understated. Because the region’s largest industry is the military, which rotates a significant percentage of the population in and out with great regularity, the population of long-term residents has a lot of slack to take up.
The report also publishes a list of largest Virginia-based charitable organizations, ranked by 2012 grants. The largest are national in scope, such as the NRA Foundation and the Freddie Mac Foundation. But of those that are primarily local in scope, Hampton Roads leads the pack. Leading the way is the Batten family, associated with three different foundations that dispensed more than $30 million in 2012. All told, eight of the state’s 40 largest foundations are located in Hampton Roads.
“State of the Region” pays particular attention to the South Hampton Roads United Way and whether the multitude of programs it oversees could be more efficiently funded.
The United Way’s review of funding candidates is unquestionably laudable; however, the consensus in the charitable world is that analogous programs need to be in place to provide additional ongoing monitoring and guidance for existing charitable organizations that have long been around. Such organizations can get stuck in a rut operationally and lose their energy and efficiency. It is not easy to scrutinize existing charities, but it is an important task that directly affects the eventual impact of the United Way.
Bacon’s bottom line: More attention needs to be given to the role and influence of philanthropy and not-for-profits in the study of U.S. metropolitan areas — not just to their operational efficiency but to how well they advance a community’s strategic goals. To grow the economy, raise the standard of living, make the community attractive to newcomers, and address the needs of the less fortunate requires collective action over and above what government can do. From my observations of the Richmond area, there is a relatively stable “philanthropic capacity” — a sum of money that corporations and affluent individuals are willing to donate over the course of a year. How much money a community raises and how it dispenses that money — either to present-oriented projects such as supporting cultural institutions and helping the poor, or to future-oriented projects such as investing in universities, medical facilities and economic development — shapes the region for better or worse.