How we give here – Part 1

Thanks to a report about to be released by Whatcom Community Foundation, we now know more specifics about charitable giving in Whatcom County.
   The Foundation commissioned Greg Winter of Cornerstone Strategies in Bellingham to update the profile of the nonprofit sector economy he first did in 2000, and to add the latest available figures from IRS tax returns to give us aggregate and ZIP code level charitable giving figures for Whatcom County.
   Aggregate charitable giving in Washington state is improving, just as it is in Whatcom County. Whatcom County’s total charitable giving grew 29 percent from 1997 to 2002, rising from $51.5 million to $65.8 million in constant 2004 dollars.
   This total amounts to 2.31 percent of all charitable contributions in Washington, slightly below the county’s 2.56 percent share of the state’s itemizers on tax returns.
   The recently released Giving in Oregon 2005 Report on Philanthropy states that Washington state ranks 39th among the 50 states in charitable giving as a percent of income.
   By another standard, percentage of itemizers who give to charity, the highest performing county in Washington does not even hit the national average of 89 percent. This reality is merely a historical benchmark; it need not be our destiny. 
   The IRS figures report people who itemize on their tax returns in two groups: those with adjusted gross income (AGI) under $50,000 and those reporting $50,000 AGI or more. While 64 percent of Whatcom itemizers were in the $50K+ category for 2002, they provided 78 percent of the charitable dollars.
   With 82 percent of its itemizers giving to charity, Whatcom County is in the top third of Washington’s 39 counties, at 13th. The highest percentage was 87 percent for Benton County, with Ferry the lowest at 64 percent.
   Meeting the national average for itemizers giving to charity and for average totals per itemizer would bring an additional $5.9 million to Whatcom County charities, a modest 9 percent increase.
The second aggregate factor the report analyzes is the average total charitable contribution by itemizers in Whatcom County. Whatcom County’s average gift total of $3,220 came fairly close to the national average of $3,461.
   The third and final critical indicator the report examines is charitable contributions as a percent of adjusted gross income for 1997 (2002 was not available yet). On this measure, Whatcom County turned up 21st of the 39 Washington counties.
   These three indicators, while valuable as benchmarks, do not provide everything we need. However, they are an important part of a serious and long overdue effort to pay closer attention to an essential component of our lives together in this place.
   One might ask why we would want to know this information. The primary reason is that we need to know regularly and in specific terms how Whatcom County philanthropy is working. We need benchmarks, not mere speculation about how we are doing. Businesses are constantly looking for ways to measure their progress in comparison to the county, state and nation.
   We need to take similar measurements to ascertain how we are supporting the nonprofit sector upon which we depend so heavily to maintain our community’s quality of life at all income levels.
Commitment to philanthropic activity is a direct measure of a community’s connectedness, and the level of permanent endowed charitable funds in a community is also an excellent measure of how well a community is planning for its future.
   Many of the problems older communities resolve today are being addressed with endowed funds forward-looking families, individuals and businesses left for future generations long ago.
   Since all philanthropy depends ultimately on the generation of private wealth, it is also important to track our philanthropic performance to see how it relates to business development and other economic measures that we have been tracking regularly for some time.
    Does charitable giving go up in direct proportion to the growth of our Whatcom County economy? How does it differ, if at all, at different income levels? Are the distribution patterns consistent or changing?
Not surprisingly, growth has its finger in the philanthropic pie. While some perceive population growth as the answer to some of our dreams for Whatcom County, growth also brings with it challenges that our nonprofit sector has been addressing.
   Growth raises many questions for which environmental nonprofits can provide creative solutions that actually serve the long-term business interests of our communities.
   Growth brings us new residents, many with considerable wealth and a history of philanthropy in their previous homes. These newcomers are looking for ways to become connected to the nonprofit sector, and they have moved here in part for the value nonprofits add to our quality of life through arts and culture, environmental protection and education, health, education and other areas.
   Not all the newcomers are at the upper end of the income scale, which is another reason we need to know in very specific terms what is happening with our local philanthropic activity. Rapid growth can also create greater disparities of wealth between the rich and the poor that traditionally have been addressed by private charitable giving for public good. 
   Given the proven track record of our growing nonprofit sector and the increasing level of local charitable giving in recent years, the future of Whatcom County philanthropy is hopeful. Philanthropy is beginning to take hold in Washington as it already has in other parts of the country with more history, and we can assume that we will all rise to the occasion to keep this place we love this place we love.

Don Drake is president of Whatcom Community Foundation, and independent nonprofit public foundation founded in 1996 with a dual mission of enhancing private charitable giving and building community in Whatcom County. He can be reached at


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