Stinginess Amid the Affluence of Suburbia
Sunday, May 8, 2005
Peter Horowitz and his wife, Elizabeth, started writing checks to Howard Community College a couple of years ago. Before long, the retired Columbia couple had given $1 million to the college, not just to fund new buildings, he said, but also to "stimulate others into giving."
Horowitz hit upon what local charities and national surveys have said for years: In affluent Howard County, philanthropy is lackluster. The county that boasts the state's highest median income ranks in the bottom half of counties for giving.
It's a perplexing fact of life in this suburban enclave between Washington and Baltimore, where Hummers sit in student lots at high schools and young moms push strollers in new subdivisions of $800,000 homes.
"The county does not give what one might expect," said Michael W. Davis, incoming chairman of the Columbia Foundation's Board of Trustees. The refrain among institutions and nonprofit groups, he said, is a long-standing one: "Who can we get in touch with to raise more money?"
Howard is not alone in being both affluent and tightfisted -- traits also shared by such counties as Montgomery and Fairfax. But Howard, more than other jurisdictions, relies on nonprofit groups to provide basic social programs, such as homeless shelters, indigent medical care and immigrant services.
Traditional revenue sources from corporations and United Way of Central Maryland have diminished, so these agencies are looking more intently at private donors, who account for 75 percent of giving in the United States.
"We need to create a pipeline of people and their children who are getting involved in community life and create the next generation of board members and community activists and philanthropists," said Lynne Nemeth, a consultant who recently studied local giving habits.
Howard's homeless people, battered spouses, illegal immigrants and drug addicts dwell in the shadow of the good life that has taken root in the county over the past 40 years. Howard has claimed Maryland's top median household income for at least the past 16 years and now -- with household income averaging $88,555 -- ranks second in the nation, according to state and federal data.
The record on giving in the county, however, lags compared with state and national levels. It's behind nearly all Washington-Baltimore jurisdictions, tied for 15th among 23 counties in the state and below Baltimore for the average amount of discretionary income that residents devoted to charity, according to a national study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The publication examined tax returns of all U.S residents who made $50,000 or more in 1997 and who itemized deductions on their federal tax returns.
The study, published in 2003, also found that Howard's percentage of giving ranked 235th on a list of 380 large U.S. counties. In contrast, giving by Prince George's County residents was the fifth highest on the list, driven in part by a tradition of diligent giving to religious institutions.
While other studies say high education and income levels stimulate giving, those fixtures of Howard life "haven't translated into a huge amount of philanthropy," Nemeth said.
But the stakes have risen to find big dollars in Howard. The county hospital is trying to raise $10 million in private money for a major expansion. Howard Community College is searching for $3 million to help pay for a new instructional building. The Columbia Foundation, which awards grants to support human services and the arts, aims to double its endowment of slightly more than $10 million.
"I'm not suggesting that all of the campaigns that I'm aware of will be successful. I think they won't," said Victor A. Broccolino, president and chief executive of Howard County General Hospital. He hopes his institution has an edge because it's the only hospital in the county.
The county's community life often features fundraisers, though the events appear to draw a familiar crowd of local executives and elected officials. The Arc of Howard County, which serves people with developmental disabilities, recently held its annual Chocolate Ball, a glitzy fundraiser at which several hundred people dined on sirloin, scallops and chocolate confections and bid on luxury items in a silent auction. John Moore, a retired executive with a defense and intelligence consulting firm, quickly agreed when a friend asked him to attend the ball and become a first-time donor.
"I get a lot of invitations [to charitable events] but nothing out of Howard County," said Moore, a Montgomery resident and former vice president and chief executive of ManTech International Corp. Perhaps in Howard, he said, "they think a little too small."
It used to be that the county's most reliable helping hand came from its biggest developer, the Rouse Co.
James W. Rouse made millions transforming cheap farmland into Columbia's 10 villages, but he also created and funded foundations that fostered a network of social services, and he encouraged his executives to serve on community boards. The Rouse Co. is gone now, sold last year to a Chicago shopping mall developer, and the surviving Rouse Co. Foundation has moved to Baltimore County.
Some aspects of Howard life dampen giving, said Nemeth, the researcher. For instance, the county has the state's highest rate of migration, with the equivalent of half the population moving in or out between 1995 and 2000. Howard's pricey housing market means nearly a quarter of homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on a mortgage.
Anne Towne, executive director of an association that serves community and human services groups, said it's also a matter of getting the word out. "We just believe there's a lot of people in Howard County who have the potential but haven't been asked," she said.