Why Baltimoreans don't give more

Not so charitable: Despite famous donors, leadership by example is below national standards.

July 30, 1999

WELL, Baltimoreans do give. The sentence suggesting otherwise was just a headline to draw interest.

But the impression has long been prevalent that Marylanders are not big charitable givers compared with per-capita philanthropy rates elsewhere. It is fortified by the moderate goals of United Way and the relatively late start and growth of the Baltimore Community Foundation.

An analysis by Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin on Sunday made the problem clear. According to an Internal Revenue Service breakdown of itemized-deduction tax returns, Marylanders with family incomes below $100,000 in 1997 gave ever-so-slightly more to charity than the national average for the bracket. Marylanders with incomes above that figure were less generous than the national average. Above $200,000, that disparity grew.

The tradition of obligation is less strong among potential giving leaders here than in such metropolitan areas as Cleveland or Minneapolis. This is even truer in the Washington suburbs than in metropolitan Baltimore.

Folks of modest income here, by contrast, are holding up their share of the burden. The compilers of the Generosity Index for the Catalogue for Philanthropy in Massachusetts testify to that. It's the rich, or some of them, who are the slouches.

Baltimoreans cherish the heritage of such philanthropists as George Peabody, Johns Hopkins and Enoch Pratt in the 19th century. As though the job were done. Of course, splendidly generous donors have shaped institutions in this century, such as Harry Weinberg, Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff, Henry J. Knott Sr., the Blaustein extended family, Harry C. Black and others.

But the next generation is to be heard from. The bench strength of community leadership is not so deep. As newer industries, professional partnerships and forms of wealth replace the more traditional givers, the need grows for the sense of duty to be transferred along with wealth.

Meanwhile, Central Maryland and its institutions struggle on as best they can, not the worst endowed in the nation but by no means the best. Efforts have been made before to increase the tradition of volunteerism and philanthropy here. More are needed.

For a healthy long run, Baltimore and its five surrounding counties require new role models of philanthropic leadership.

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