THOUGH INDIVIDUALS and businesses in the Washington area have been generous with their contributions to the annual United Way drives, there are other important philanthropic sources that traditionally have not responded here as well as they do in other parts of the country: the leading U.S. corporations, which closer ties to the ciities and states in which they are headquartered. While some of these organizations may have been interested in contributing in some way to charitable works in this area, they have lacked the local knowledge and contacts that justify decisions to give.

But that is changing. An oraganization called the Community Foundation of Greater Washington has been working since 1977 with national foundations, corporations and individuals to promote the financing of porjects in this area - and the effort, intended to complement the United Way appeals - is beinginning to produce tangible results. Leading corporations are providing new money and enjoying partnerships with local business and community leaders; and this months, the first grants are being awarded to groups working to prevent family displacements and organizations seeking to improve transportation and care for the elderly.

James R. Houhgton, vice chairman of Corning Glass Works, explains that while there is growing understanding of "the responsibility that the corporate world has to the nation's capital," the corporations needed guidance in giving. Corning "did not have the kind of professional staff support in Washington that would enable us to identify social priorities, make funding decisions, monitor program porgress and evaluate results." Clifford C. Garvin Jr., chairman of the board of the Exxon Corporation and chairman of the United Way of America, describes the Community Foundation as "as extremely important complement to the United Way.

While it is too early to know how the Community Foundation will grow or what its impact on the community may be, it is off to a good start-for already it has attracted new sources of money that strengthen the ability of the private sector to step in and help where government does not or cannot afford to.