Our faith in charity yields hope for future

The Economy

November 11, 1996|By Jay Hancock

CHARITY, THE third Augustinian virtue, challenges the theories of economists and biologists alike. How, on a globe spun by self-interest, can altruism exist? And yet it does, yielding hope (the second virtue) that the materialists have not yet explained all.

But to say that charity exists is not to say that it distributes resources efficiently.

Metro Baltimore is a few days from capping its yearly United Way drive to finance private human-services agencies. The goal is $38.75 million. It's not a lot of money. It's not even a 10th of 1 percent of the $60 billion in income the Commerce Department says metro Baltimoreans will earn this year. Giving, of course, flows beyond the United Way. Baltimore's $100-million- plus religion industry is now securing its revenue for 1997.

And 112 local nonprofits are seeking $1.6 billion -- an even heavier sum -- in building funds, endowments and other permanent investments, according to information recently published by the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers.

The Grantmakers' report offers a remarkable glimpse of Baltimore's philanthropic proclivities. Charities don't set fund-raising goals that aren't likely to be met; the catalog tells almost as much about who gives and why as about who passes the hat.

Dominating the grant seekers, as it dominates Maryland's higher education and research, is the Johns Hopkins University. In a campaign running from 1994 to 2000, Hopkins is seeking $900 million for endowments, hospital buildings and other projects.

If history is a guide, Hopkins will get the money, vacuuming big chunks of the area's tax-deductible donations for the rest of the decade.

Other organizations with big needs or big ambitions include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra ($100 million), the Baltimore Zoo ($50 million), Gilman School ($15 million), Goucher College ($40 million), Sinai Hospital ($60 million) and McDonogh School ($25 million).

More big, local clots of charity cash show up in the records of Maryland's Charitable Organizations Division.

The Enterprise Foundation in Columbia accepts $16 million from the public each year, the division says. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, $12 million; the American Cancer Society's Maryland division, $9 million.

Americans are known for generosity. They donated $144 billion last year, according to the "Giving USA" report by a fund-raising trade group. Lester Salamon, head of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, has said that we give an average of 2 percent of our income, more than any other nation.

But what jumps from all these reports is a pattern that free-market economists might recognize. Money, even money propelled by altruistic intentions, tends to stay in the neighborhood. Sectarian helps sect. Alumni help alma mater. Patient helps hospital. Patron helps museum.

Baltimore philanthropists are good at financing violin players' salaries or prep school gyms. Meanwhile, the paint is peeling in sheets from exterior walls of Baltimore City schools. At least one school must ration its paper towels by allowing each child only half a piece.

Philanthropy in the Greek means "love of humankind." But human services comprise just 2 percent -- $30 million over five years -- of all the dollars being raised on the Baltimore Grantmakers' list. Arts and culture make up 7 percent; education, 26 percent; health, 6 percent; "miscellaneous," including the whopper Hopkins crusade, 59 percent.

In 1995, national charitable donations for social services fell for the second year in a row, dropping more than 10 percent in the two years, according to the Giving USA study.

The Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust, known as BEST, awards grants to gifted, low-income black children so they can attend private prep schools. BEST is about to start trying to collect its yearly operating budget. It's shooting for $220,000. That's the price of four violin players. Or one-eighteenth of a Vinny Testaverde.

BEST is also trying to amass $6 million over seven years for an endowment that would generate interest and other income to fund scholarships.

With five years elapsed and $3.5 million raised so far, "we're kind of stuck midway," says BEST executive director Karen Bond.

Eighty kids entered BEST programs this year; 580 were rejected for lack of lucre. "It's not about our schools," Bond said. "They would love to accept more students. It's about money."

Meanwhile, Baltimore schools, the alternative for most of these children, taught their charges well enough in 1994 for about 14 percent to meet minimum state standards for learning.

Biologists explain charity as a side effect of selfish genes helping their own kind; economists assume that donors get psychological kickbacks even when they don't get fiscal ones.

But economists also see charity as investment -- a capitalization of culture, medical research, human potential. And they talk about diminishing returns -- the tendency for additional benefits to shrink as new money gets added to an already well-financed cause.

Untold billions have been spent for decades on cancer research and still 547,000 Americans died of the disease last year. Yet Baltimore businesses have trouble hiring high school graduates who can read, cipher and follow instructions.

Perhaps Baltimore's underprivileged youth are worth more emotional and financial investment. The payoff would please both the economists and the sociologists. And it would nurture faith (the first virtue) that equal opportunity is more than a platitude.

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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