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AREA GETS HIGH MARKS FOR CHARITABLE GIVING

Just how generous are residents in the City of Good Neighbors anyway?

At least $639 million worth over the past four years, a new study released Monday suggests.

That's the amount a group of representative charitable organizations in Erie County received between 1998 and 2001 from individuals, businesses and foundations, according to a report examining giving patterns in the area.

The "Report Card on Charitable Giving," commissioned by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, is the first attempt to quantify the level of overall giving in Erie County and to evaluate where the money goes.

In 2001, the nonprofit groups received an estimated $162 million in donated dollars -- an amount roughly equivalent to the combined budgets of the county's two most heavily populated towns, Amherst and Cheektowaga, where about 210,000 people live.

"This is a lot of money. It's a funding engine," said Gail Johnstone, president of the community foundation.

Health and educational institutions received more than half of the giving, taking in a larger share of the overall pie than health and education causes did nationally.

However, donors here gave less to environmental causes and human service agencies in 2001, compared with national giving in those areas.

Giving to arts groups was about the same in Erie County as it was nationally.

Other key findings include:

Giving over the four years increased by 17 percent -- and despite a 6 percent decrease from 2000 to 2001 -- outpacing the Consumer Price Index inflation rate of 10.1 percent over the same period.

Individuals were the major source of the giving, accounting for 82 percent of donations in 2001, followed by foundations and then businesses.

The only sector experiencing a reduction in support was public funding organizations, by 26 percent between 1998 and 2001.

The gains and dips in giving locally mimicked the performance of the stock market nationally.

Organizers said the findings will have more meaning over time and with subsequent research.

Future studies will attempt to compare giving in Erie County with that of other regions.

Philanthropic report cards are a growing national trend, said Bart Morrison, director of New Ventures in Philanthropy, a promotion project of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, based in Washington, D.C.

"The idea is to measure giving along several dimensions. How much is being given and to what purposes, and relative to income and assets," said Morrison. The Greater Milwaukee Foundation recently published its sixth annual report card on charitable giving in Greater Milwaukee.

A representative group of charitable organizations there received $222.6 million in 2001, up from about $184 million in 1998.

"By putting out every year a report that says here's how philanthropy is doing, it's a way of reminding people that giving matters," said Frank Miller, communication director for the foundation and coordinator of the report.

Miller said charitable giving should be monitored in much the same way as housing starts and employment data to get a true measure of a community's health.

"The ultimate purpose of the report card is to compare ourselves to ourselves," Miller said. "This tells people (the) scope (of giving) and its impact and how strong the charitable pulse is at a given time."

The Erie County study is modeled after the Milwaukee research. The community foundation and the United Way spent $15,000 on the study, which was conducted by Cornerstone Research & Marketing Inc. in Tonawanda.

Researchers collected data from 62 "bellwether" charitable organizations, relying on Form 990 tax returns that the IRS requires most non-profit charitable organizations to file.

The survey also asked executives at the organizations for their views on the state of charitable giving and how giving here compares to other communities.

Organizers acknowledged that the report has shortcomings.

It does not, for example, include any analysis of giving to religious groups -- the single largest sector receiving donations nationally, according to the Giving USA reports, published annually by the AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy.

Giving to religious causes was left out because those organizations are not required to file with the IRS, so their data were not verifiable, said Rhonda Ried, president of Cornerstone.

In addition, although it includes major charitable organizations such as area hospital foundations and colleges, the local approach leaves out hundreds of other groups. Nonetheless, organizers said giving to the bellwether agencies alone accounted for more than 80 percent of giving to all 700 Erie County nonprofit groups listed with the State Charities Bureau.

And, added Ried, "It doesn't say, 'In comparison to other communities, we're more generous or less generous.' "

Still, the study is a starting point, said Morrison.

"Once you get your baseline study, then you're able to say something to yourselves about where you're going," he said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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