Nov. 17, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 6
BC Study Challenges Data on States' Charitable Giving
States said to lag behind the nation in charitable giving - including Massachusetts - actually have higher generosity levels than those indicated by a widely touted annual index, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.
The study, sponsored by the Boston Foundation, recalculates giving levels, which since 1997 had been annually evaluated by the Generosity Index, a widely used list that ranks all 50 states according to how much local residents give to charity, published by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.
For example, Massachusetts was ranked the second stingiest in the 2004 Generosity Index, seventh in the 2002 index. But the BC researchers call these rankings a "myth" in the new report, which for the first time subjects the index to rigorous scrutiny. When cost of living and tax burden in the area are taken into account, Massachusetts moves from 49th to 11th in terms of charitable giving based on 2002 data and from 44th to 6th based on 2000 data.
The new report, titled "Geography and Generosity" and conducted by Center on Wealth and Philanthropy Director Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology) and John J. Havens, center associate director, was released last week at a forum at the Boston Foundation.
Schervish and Havens presented a summary of their findings, suggesting a more rigorous way to calculate the level of giving in a particular state and calling for a different way to understand the idea of generosity - not as a narrowly competitive status on the single incremental list, but as a complex attitude that factors in significant differences between states and regions in the country.
"Dr. Schervish has achieved something truly remarkable with this study," said Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan. "He has put our understanding of philanthropy onto a foundation of fact rather than hunch. And he confirms what many have suspected: the residents of Massachusetts give generously and well to causes and ideas that matter to them. In fact, this report invites us to change our understanding of ourselves."
The Index of Generosity has received national media attention and served as grist for cultural conversation on thousands of web sites. Columnists and talk-radio hosts cited the index during the 2004 presidential campaign as proof that President George. W. Bush has a better grasp on core American values because the states that voted for him are clustered at the more generous end of the list.
"Geography and Generosity" includes an analysis of the Generosity Index, which is based on income tax returns, and determined that it is inaccurate in part because of a built-in bias against high-income states.
The center's new method of measuring charitable donations as a proportion of income calculates the share of total charitable contributions donated by the residents of each state and compares it to the share of income earned by residents of the same state. In this case, income can be calculated in terms of gross income, net of taxes, adjusted for differences in the cost of living in different states. According to Schervish and Havens, this formula compares the capacity of state residents to give against their actual pattern of giving.