Clear standards boost contributions


April 13, 1992|By LESTER A. PICKER

Spring is in the air, the Orioles have a spanking new stadium, and they've won their opener. To my soon-to-be 12-year-old stepson, Neil, not much can be wrong with the world right about now. Even the economy is showing signs of recovery.

So, how come an unprecedented number of people are in need in our society? I won't even pretend to analyze the question. But buried within our current problems are the seeds of enormous opportunity.

In Baltimore, one of the many positive responses was the creation of the Partners For Giving program. Partners, which is about 2 1/2 years old, brings together many diverse organizations and individuals to encourage philanthropy. In Maryland, that is desperately needed.

Partners is best known for its Give Five initiative, in which ordinary people like you and me are encouraged to give 5 percent of our income to charity and five hours each week as volunteers.

According to a study commissioned by Partners, 87 percent of Central Marylanders give to charity versus the national average of 75 percent -- but we give a far lower percentage of our income. If that same group of Central Marylanders was to increase giving to only 2.5 percent of income, local non-profits would receive a staggering $275 million more each year.

And, in volunteering, we need to improve, too. Only 34 percent of us volunteer our time, compared to a national average of 50 percent. Again, if enough of us stepped up to the plate to equal the national average, it would be the equivalent of adding $214 million of volunteer labor to our non-profits.

Standards of giving are important. Without them, we have no way to gauge whether we are doing enough.

I recall the story of one of the Rockefellers, who as a child was given 15 cents a week for allowance. Her father made her put a nickel in each of three boxes, one for her to spend, one for her savings account and one for charity. Each year she would decide to which charity she would give her money. To this day, the wealthy philanthropist still gives a third of her money away.

As it turns out, in the past month I've had three conversations with people who have brought up the 5 percent standard on their own.

In one case, the individual was giving 5 percent, having increased his contributions within the past year in response to the Partners campaign. In the other two conversations, the individuals apologized for not being at that standard, but both signaled their intentions to be there in future years. It's amazing how making social norms clear can affect people's behavior.

But, standards are only a target. While many of us never achieve the minimum standard, some of us do even better, consistently giving 7, 10, 15, even 20 percent each year.

Why is it we never hear about these people, the real heroes of philanthropy?

A $1 million gift is impressive. Even more impressive is the couple who gives 10 percent of their income over 20 or 30 years.

So, this week I spent some time talking with people who are giving 10 percent or more of their income. Surprisingly, not one wanted to be identified, and not because they feared a barrage of solicitations. In every case, these people believed it was a moral imperative to give the most they can afford.

In an annual study commissioned by a New York group, another consistency emerges. People who characterize themselves as religious tend to give far more than their non-religious peers.

My interviews reinforced that finding. One prominent Jewish Baltimorean told me, "It's a matter of religious conviction. Giving is explicitly commanded in the Torah at the 10 percent level. I choose not to stop at that. It's purely a matter of feeling a moral obligation."

The same is true of a Mormon family with whom I spoke. They tithed, whether it involved the husband's nearly six-figure income or their 10-year-old son's lawn mowing jobs.

Which brings up another common theme among those who give at greater percentages. Invariably, their giving standard was, as the sociologists say, acculturated. Whether through their religious community or through intense family involvement, giving at high levels was a stated norm, an expectation reinforced in many ways.

The challenge for Partners, and for all non-profits in our region, is to extend that norm to the larger community.

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