A recent survey of charitable giving practices at the state, county, and metropolitan level published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy sparked questions about the nature of the disparities in giving patterns between various locales and about whether they can be attributed to a localized culture of giving. The existence of such a culture requires the active shaping of charitable practice within a geographically based community through the generation of norms, models, traditions, and opportunities that stem from its material, socioeconomic, and political reality. Although scholarship on charitable giving has long preferred a national perspective, there are signs that a more local, place-based focus is gaining traction.
In this essay, Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy research associate Benjamin Soskis reflects on the nature of a local culture of giving with a particular emphasis on the Washington, DC, metropolitan region. He highlights a range of factors that scholars have drawn attention to in identifying and assessing such a culture, including the ethnic and religious identities of a locale’s residents (especially its elites), the character of its prime industries, and the nature of its system of governance and political economy. Using historical case studies from Silicon Valley, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Boston, Soskis demonstrates the enduring impact of a community’s founding generation as well as the significance of the development of intermediary institutions and facilitators in nurturing a culture of giving. He also discusses the potential for multiple giving cultures (growing around shared economic status or ethnic and racial identity) to coexist and shape each other in the same locale.
Soskis explores these various dynamics in his examination of Washington, DC’s giving culture within the context of its distinctive socioeconomic and demographic profile. Although the city’s culture of giving has long been relatively modest and ill-defined, lacking massive private fortunes, exemplary donors, or guiding institutions, Soskis suggests that a more robust giving culture is emerging as a product of the region’s burgeoning wealth and the maturation of its philanthropic infrastructure.