New England Charity

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(HOST) A recent study of charitable giving in New England takes a closer look at some oft-cited figures that seem to show that New Englanders are less generous than people in other parts of the country. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.

(GILBERT) Have you ever wondered how much “other people” are giving to charity – like your neighbors and friends? Well, in New England, households contribute an average of about $1350 to charity each year. That’s seven percent higher than the national average. That speaks very well indeed for New Englanders’ generosity.

That’s just one of the conclusions of a fascinating report published last November by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University entitled “A Closer Look at New England Giving.”

The report also contains other news that should be gratifying to New Englanders. An impressive eighty-two percent of New England households give to charity. That’s compared to just 67% of households nationally. That high participation rate speaks well of a pervasive culture of giving in New England. In New England, charitable giving is not a spectator sport; most everybody takes part. Moreover, in the rest of the country, how much money people give is affected by factors other than their income or wealth. Elsewhere, older householders give more, married people give more, and giving rises with educational level. But that’s not true in New England. In New England, how much donors give is affected only by their capacity to give. That’s inspiring: New Englanders of many different profiles contribute. Again, in New England, almost everybody participates in philanthropy! Thus, the report concludes that, in some ways, contrary to popular opinion, New Englanders are more generous than people in other areas. In other ways, however, we could be said to be less generous. What’s abundantly clear is that giving patterns in New England are very different than they are in other regions of the country.

The most significant difference between charitable giving in New England and giving elsewhere in the country has to do with religion. If you look at households who give money to secular – non-religious – charities, New Englanders give substantially more than donors nationwide. But New Englanders give far less to religious charities – in terms of both percentage of income and dollars donated.

The report is based on survey data from an impressive 6,000 households nationwide; it’s considered highly reliable and the most valid comparative regional data available. You can find a copy on the website of the Vermont Community Foundation, which helped fund the study.

It’s said that if you torture statistics long enough, they’ll confess to anything. There’s some truth in that. But it’s also true that a careful examination of facts – including statistics – often reveals a more nuanced – and more accurate – picture than the one you expected. In this case, the picture of New England is one of significant and remarkably broad-based generosity.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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