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Why Dallas is a national hub of charitable giving

September 20, 2016 - Dallas Morning News

Left to right, Eli Jennings, 3, Grace Tornow, 3, Amelia Mooseller, 3, and Mason Mosseller, 2, keep a close eye on Jazz the penguin from the Dallas Zoo on Thursday, September 17, 2015. NorthPark Center took part in the North Texas Giving Day with hands-on philanthropic activities with area non-profit organizations.

When most Americans think of Dallas, oil, football, Texas Instruments and other symbols of robust, unapologetic free enterprise come to mind. What fewer people realize is that North Texas, now the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area, has become a hub of philanthropic giving, where social entrepreneurs are finding new ways to help the needy.

With its dynamic, growing economy and an unprecedented population surge, the area provides a philanthropic platform for ambition. It's a platform with at least three key characteristics, all representative of Dallas.

The first is a capacity for expansive visions and large commitments.

Brent Christopher, former head of the Communities Foundation of Texas, which manages more than $1 billion in philanthropic funds, says Dallas philanthropists like "making really big bets on original ideas."

An example is the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation. Founder Ruben Amarasingham's goal is to break the cycle of hospital readmissions among the poor. The method: aggregating and analyzing records from a variety of institutions, such as homeless shelters, food pantries and veterans' centers, to identify patients whose physical and behavioral problems deserve special attention. A small trial program succeeded in lowering the rate of return visits by such patients by 27 percent at Parkland, which sees 1.2 million patient visits annually.

The W.W. Caruth Foundation bet big on Amarasingham, pumping $12 million into his software program. The foundation was founded by a man committed to enterprising philanthropy. "He didn't want us to provide annual $100,000 operating grants to established social service organizations," says Christopher of the Communities Foundation, which handles the Caruth Foundation's endowment. "He was a Texas entrepreneur. He wanted us to write big checks for important new ideas -- in Dallas."

Second, such giving is reinforced by the sort of individual charity that has helped build major new faith-based initiatives. That includesfledgling urban ministries and huge new mega-church institutions.

Consider Reid Porter and his 20-strong staff of Advocates for Community Transformation, who act on two beliefs: in Christ as savior and that black lives matter. ACT recruits West Dallas homeowners to file suits against absentee landlords whose properties provide havens for the drug and sex trades. They've forced eviction of tenants, demolition, or sale of more than 70 such houses in the past four years.

ACT's legal strategy draws on volunteers from 13 law firms and the Southern Methodist University School of Law, who provide an estimated $2.4 million in pro bono assistance.

Third, these efforts rely on legions of volunteers, many also faith-inspired. Thus, while the Dallas economy gallops along and remains identified with thriving businesses and sometimes gaudy displays of wealth, Dallas civil society could be described, without irony, as a combination of faith, hope and charity.

If Dallas isn't widely known yet for its philanthropic spirit, neither is Texas commonly associated with social-mindedness. Yet the Lone Star State, which averages more than $7,500 in itemized charitable deductions per tax return, ranks sixth in the nation for charitable giving, higher than any other large state, according to IRS data compiled by the Urban Institute. Texas tax returns show charitable giving totaling more than $16 billion. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranks Dallas the eighth-most generous city in the country.

Further, official data almost certainly understate the extent of such giving in Texas because the Urban Institute's ranking "does not account for charitable giving by non-itemizers." Only 19 percent of taxpayers in Texas itemize their returns, compared with the nationwide average of 33 percent. In a state where home prices are low, mortgage interest, one of the top reasons to itemize taxes, is also low. And Texas has no state income tax, another common deduction in other states.

One conservative estimate, developed by the Indiana University-affiliated Giving USA Foundation, concludes that non-itemized contributions may add up to as much as 20 percent of the tracked total from itemizers. By that calculation, non-itemizing Texans provide an additional $3.2 billion in donations.

Joe Perry, a minister of Prestonwood Baptist Church, says that many cases, his members make substantial gifts in cash. Some are vigilant about asking for a receipt, and just as many decline his offer of one.

Religiosity no doubt explains some of why Texans are so generous. The Pew Research Center ranks Texas as the 11th-most religious state in the nation. Relatively high levels of discretionary income also help account for Texans' largesse. Texans pay a low share of their income in taxes, leaving them with more after-tax income to give away than residents of other states.

Big-money philanthropy, small-money charity, legions of volunteers and a healthy dose of religion define the Dallas, and Texas, model of social entrepreneurship. Measured in dollars, charitable giving continues to rise: the average contributions per Texas tax return grew by 22 percent from 2007 to 2012, while those of New York grew by just 1.7 percent.

The Texas platform for ambition keeps expanding.

 

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