Is Houston still one of the most generous cities in the US?


With a rich history as a philanthropic city, Houston has a reputation as one of the nation’s most charitable metros. However, a recent ranking doesn’t find the city to be quite so generous.

Photo by Derick McKinney / Unsplash

With a rich history as a philanthropic city, Houston has a reputation as one of the nation’s most charitable metros. However, a recent ranking doesn’t find the city to be quite so generous.

If you’re in need of inspiration, check out Tucker C. Toole’s National Geographic story about the work of Chris Williams, CEO and executive chef of Lucille’s, to bring meals to first responders working the night shift and nursing homes in Third Ward, Fifth Ward and Sunnyside during the pandemic. So far, Williams and his team have provided 100,000 meals to the overworked and underserved in Houston. Williams also supplied 6,000 meals to Houstonians taking shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Toole’s story is accompanied by Graham Dickie’s powerful black and white photographs, including one of Houston Food Bank volunteer Tom Ashworth. Known as “Mr. Tom,” Ashworth gives more than 2,000 hours of his time each year to the work of sorting food for distribution at the food bank, which has seen a skyrocket in demand fueled by economic strife related to the pandemic.

Despite unprecedented demand, COVID-19 safety protocols have reduced the number of volunteers the food bank is allowed to use by 85% — from 1,000 to 150. (The food bank reports more than 88,000 individual volunteers contributed over 537,600 hours of service in fiscal year 2020.) The restrictions placed no limits on financial donations, which the food bank saw increase by 468% in the first six months of 2020 — 112% in the first quarter ($7 million) and 797% in the second ($32.2 million), the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in October.

After a 6% year-over-year decline in charitable giving in the first quarter of 2020, there was a 12% increase in quarter two, which resulted in an overall 7.5% increase in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019, the Fundraising Effectiveness Project found. Giving slowed in the third quarter, but overall donations in the first nine months of last year were still up 7.6% over the first three quarters of 2019. The rate of growth in the “overall number of people making a charitable donation” was up 6% and the number of “new donors” increased 11.7%. Through September, donations in 2020 were at the highest levels seen in the past five years.

“We almost always see decreased giving in the first quarter of the year, and fundraisers should be cautious about getting too excited about the uptick in giving in the second quarter,” Lori Hunter Overmyer, chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Research Council, told Philanthropy News Digest. “We are likely to see a continued increase in need for the important services the social sector provides to communities, and we're watching the impact of a very slow economy — which could potentially depress giving over the long-term.”

Donations to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which were up 51% in quarter one but fell 87% in the second quarter, bucked that trend. Giving to the MFAH, which was closed for two months because of the pandemic, declined by 46% for the first half of the year. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the only other Houston nonprofit included in the Chronicle of Philanthropy report, giving fell an estimated 17% in the first half of last year, with declines of 10% and 23% in the first and second quarters.

Giving slowed in the third quarter, but overall donations in the first nine months of last year were still up 7.6% over the first three quarters of 2019.

The “Most Generous U.S. Cities” ranking from LawnStarter compared the 150 biggest U.S. cities across 12 indicators of philanthropic behavior, including volunteering rates, the prevalence of food banks, soup kitchens, nonprofit organizations, animal shelters and more. Houston ended up a surprising 65 out of 150.

How did this happen? This city has a long history of largesse, with many other affluent Houstonians having gone very big in their giving. Isn’t this the city that hosted, housed and fed more than 150,000 Louisianians who fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina tried to wash their city away? What about the Houston the world saw step up during the dark days and high waters of Hurricane Harvey?

No, it’s not gone. Before we start mourning the big heart of Houston, let’s take a closer look at the methodology used in the LawnStarter list, starting with “Food Banks per 100,000 Residents.”

The LawnStarter report placed Houston at No. 146 out 150 cities under the heading “Fewest Food Banks Per 100,000 Residents.” It’s unclear what data was used in reaching this conclusion, but looking at totals from the Houston Food Bank for March 9–Sept. 30, 2020, the ranking doesn’t seem to square with reality. The food bank distributed 148.9 million pounds of food — 68.9 million pounds of which was produce — to 1,500 community partners in southeast Texas. That served about an average of 126,500 households each week, a 76% increase compared to that period in 2019.

In the week of Oct. 28–Nov. 9, 21.4% of households in the Houston area experienced food scarcity, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. By far, the highest level of the nation’s 15 largest metropolitan statistical areas.

Compare that to the Greater Boston Food Bank, which distributed 68 million pounds of food to 500-plus hunger-relief agencies throughout Eastern Massachusetts from March to September.

For “nonprofit organizations per 100,000 residents,” LawnStarter relied on the website Governing’s 2019 assessment of “Where Nonprofits Are Most Prevalent in America,” which used data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics to determine the number of locally focused nonprofits per 10,000 population across the nation’s 383 metropolitan statistical areas. Topping the list was the Barnstable Town, Massachusetts, metro area, where 517 nonprofits were distributed among a population of some 213,000 — 24.2 per 10,000 residents. Pittsfield, Massachusetts (286/22.6); Santa Fe, New Mexico (285/19); Missoula, Montana (219/18.4); and Ithaca, New York (187/18.2) rounded out the top five. The Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land MSA was ranked No. 354, with five nonprofits per 10,000 residents; that’s 3,515 nonprofit organizations spread among a population of 7 million (the 12th most among all metros).

In the week of Oct. 28–Nov. 9, 21.4% of households in the Houston area experienced food scarcity.

The researchers who conducted the Governing study found that “older, more established communities, especially in the Northeast and the industrial Midwest” — those that tend to have more legacy wealth and established institutions — had far more nonprofits than more recently developed and fast-growing regions. The latter would include metros like Houston, Dallas (No. 327 on the nonprofits list) and San Antonio (No. 353), which experienced 19% increases in population in the past 10 years.

The cities’ generosity was also measured using the share of residents who:

► volunteer
► do favors for neighbors
► do something positive for the neighborhood
► participate in local groups or organizations
► donate $25 or more to charity

These five metrics came from the Corporation for National and Community Service’s comprehensive 2018 report “Volunteering in America,” which ranked the 51 largest metropolitan areas on those metrics and the percentage of residents who volunteer, the total number of volunteers, hours of service and the value of volunteer work. LawnStarter’s list consists of cities, not metro areas, which possibly explains the proximity of Minneapolis and St. Paul at Nos. 1 and 2; Seattle and Tacoma at Nos. 7 and 9; Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington at Nos. 3 and 5; Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, at Nos. 6 and 14. Though it doesn’t account for Anaheim filling the No. 15 spot while Los Angles was ranked No. 88.

Four of the top 10 generous cities are in the Northwest, and those four are located in the metros ranked fifth and eighth in the “volunteering among cities” list.

“While cities like Portland and Seattle have solid numbers of volunteers and participation in local organizations, part of their high scores could be attributed to need,” according to the LawnStarter report. “It’s no secret that the West Coast has a large homeless population, and with housing prices continuing to soar in the region, it’s doubtful the need will dissipate anytime soon.”

LawnStarter also considered shelter beds and housing beds per 100,000 residents.

The Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Continuum of Care homeless population reports show there are 12,685 people living without homes in Seattle-Tacoma and 5,503 in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area. Those metros have total populations of 4 million and 2.5 million, respectively. There are 3,938 people without housing in the Houston metro area, which is home to 7 million.

The volunteer rate in the Houston metropolitan area is 31%, the highest among the big four Texas metros but right in the middle (23rd) of the nation’s 50 largest metros. That’s according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, based on data collected by the Census Bureau on behalf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., only Philadelphia (17th) and Phoenix (21st) had higher volunteer rates than Houston. More than 1.5 million volunteers contribute 122.5 million hours of service — worth an estimated $2.9 billion.

► 96.4% of Houston-area residents regularly talk or spend time with friends and family
► 56.6% do favors for neighbors
► 28.4% do something positive for the neighborhood
► 21.7% participate in local groups or organizations
► 54% donate $25 or more to charity

No city in Texas cracked the top 30 of the most generous cities on LawnStarter’s list. The highest-ranked were Irving (54), Plano (55), Grand Prairie (58) and Frisco (59) — part of the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington MSA. Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington were ranked at Nos. 92, 91 and 76, respectively. Houston was ranked No. 5 among cities for the largest share of residents who improve the neighborhood, according to LawnStarter.

There are 3,938 people without housing in the Houston metro area, which is home to 7 million.

In 2017, Charity Navigator, America’s largest charity evaluator, ranked Houston’s philanthropic community second only to San Diego’s. Houston was No. 1 in 2014 and 2015 as well. The study compared the “median performance and size of the largest nonprofits in the 30 largest metropolitan markets,” as well as their overall financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency. It found the median contribution among the 104 biggest charities in Houston was $4.3 million, the highest in the nation and almost $1.5 million more than the national median.

When comparing LawnStarter’s top 10 to where they landed on Charity Navigator’s “Most Charitable Cities” list, Minneapolis-St. Paul is at No. 8, Portland is No. 10, neither Salt Lake nor Washington, D.C., is included, Boston in No. 23, Seattle is No. 25 and Baltimore is No. 21.

As the pandemic’s impact on the economy and individual households continues for close to a year, it’s important to remain mindful of things that can be done — from volunteering time to giving money — to support those in need by supporting nonprofits that help connect those in need with needed resources. Individuals can also look out for their neighbors by checking in to make sure they’re doing OK. The strength of a community’s fundamental social structure is an indicator of its resiliency.

“As a sociologist, I believe nothing is more important than the social fabric of a neighborhood,” Rachel Kimbro, a Rice University sociology professor, said in reference to the “Sunnyside Strong Survey” when it was released in November 2019. “When residents trust and look out for each other, even factors like high poverty levels are not as impactful on well-being.”

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