WASHINGTON – It may be the season of giving, but don’t count on Marylanders to open up their wallets or purses too wide.
Although Maryland is a relatively affluent state, residents are some of the nation’s stingiest givers. In 1996, the average charitable contribution from Maryland residents was about 10 percent below the national average, based on an analysis of tax returns by the state task force on charitable giving.
The state’s wealthier residents were even tighter with their cash. Maryland residents with more than $100,000 in income gave just over two-thirds of what people with comparable incomes gave nationwide, ranking the state 47th lowest in giving in that income group.
The analysis of giving said Marylanders as a whole gave $2,438 compared to a national average of $2,698 in 1996. For people making more than $100,000, the averages were $5,351 in Maryland compared to $7,434 nationwide.
“This has been a public policy concern for many years now,” said Henry Bogdan, public policy director for the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.
Nonprofit groups could not point to a specific factor that would account for the miserliness in Maryland, whose median income of $42,132 in 1995 was one of the highest in the nation. But the advocates said there are several areas that likely contribute to the problem.
“There are a lot of factors that need to be addressed, such as tax incentives and an increased public education and awareness of what charities do,” Bogdan said. “We need to make people more confident in the organizations that are asking them for money.”
Larry E. Walton, director of the United Way in Maryland and chairman of the governor’s task force on charitable giving, agreed that some blame for low giving should fall on the charities themselves.
“People want to give aid to people in their home community,” Walton said. “But they must truly be convinced the need exists. The nonprofit community also has to bear part of the responsibility for turning this around.”
Walton’s task force, Maryland Gives!, was created in 1996 to study charitable giving in Maryland and make recommendations for bolstering it. “We’ve done the studying, research and homework and we are now ready to take action,” Walton said.
The task force will push for legislation in the upcoming session of the General Assembly that would grant tax incentives for charitable donors and it has requested funding for a major public education campaign. That campaign would aim to help Marylanders understand that a strong nonprofit sector adds value to the quality of life for everyone, Walton said.
“The awareness level is not as high as it should be,” he said.
Robert Hess, executive director for the Center for Poverty Solutions, said that those who are well off in Maryland may also be unaware of the plight of the poor.
“The reality is that times are good for a lot of people but times are tougher today for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum that they have been in 20 years,” Hess said.
“Folks that are amassing this great amount of wealth don’t see the pain that people are going through on the other end,” he said. “It’s not because the public doesn’t care — it’s that they just don’t see it.”
Hess’ group operates on an annual budget of almost $5 million, two-thirds of it private donations.
“You can’t do advocacy work without private donations,” he said. Hess said the group’s donations have been “somewhat flat” recently.
“It’s a little surprising, given the times we’re in,” he said.