The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Charitable giving in D.C. is well below the national average

Homeless D.C. residents try to keep warm along a building at the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro station in January. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Tonia Wellons is interim president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

The District is a magnet for some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful people. It’s also home to world-class museums, top-flight thinkers and the national headquarters for many of our nation’s most prominent nonprofits.

But even with these tremendous resources, we are conspicuously behind the curve when it comes to one important measure: generosity.

In fact, when you look at the data, our community is punching well below its weight when it comes to charitable giving. The District is failing to properly take care of our neighbors who need it most.

A common measure of philanthropy for individuals is the giving ratio. It’s a simple calculation: charitable contributions as a share of total adjusted gross income. And, unfortunately, the numbers paint a sobering picture. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s most recent analysis of Internal Revenue Service data, those living in the Washington metro area give just 2.9 percent of their income to charity. This means our region gives at a rate below the national average (3.3 percent). We even give below the rates of neighboring cities such as Baltimore (3 percent) and Richmond (3.1 percent).

The Washington area’s giving ratio is tied for No. 245 out of 381 metro areas in the United States — and our giving rate is 7.3 percent lower than the average for the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.

If we gave at even the national average — a mere additional 0.4 percentage points — we would instantly unleash an additional $548.3 million per year to tackle issues such as housing, education, hunger and health care.

And the need is great.

In the District alone, 32,000 children live below the federal poverty line — a figure that ranks among the highest in the country — and nearly 1 out of every 100 D.C. residents experiences homelessness on any given night.

Though money alone won’t fix these problems, it will help ensure that more families can meet their basic essential needs for food, shelter, health care and more. And, if invested properly, philanthropy can help address the root causes of these issues.

When all eyes are on Washington, we have an opportunity to create an example for what positive change looks like, particularly at the local level. And we have to invest in our local community to make it happen.

As the interim chief executive for the Greater Washington Community Foundation, I know what’s possible when people who care about their community decide to give back. Every day, a dedicated group of individuals and families works with us to create and execute charitable giving strategies that help strengthen our community in meaningful ways.

Daniel and Karen Mayers are one such example. They donated $100,000 this year to kick-start a campaign to raise $1 million for the Partnership to End Homelessness, a new public-private partnership we launched with the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Since then, they’ve been able to raise an additional $500,000 through family, friends and other supporters to help end homelessness in our region.

Their investment will have a direct impact on the lives of the District’s most marginalized residents.

It starts with us — neighbors helping neighbors.

Let’s show the world that we’re not just about politics. By coming together to improve our community, we can help improve lives here in the greater Washington region — and set a new standard for improving lives in cities and towns across the country.

Read more:

Ken Stern: Five myths about charitable giving

Joseph Young: To solve D.C.’s homelessness problem, the city must talk to those affected

Patrick Geiger and Aaron Howe: D.C.’s homeless encampment ‘cleanups’ are only making things worse

The Post’s View: Trump is turning a good idea into a tricky way to hurt the poor