Chattanooga high on giving list

photo A jar of donations sits on a table at United Way of Greater Chattanooga's Stuff the Bus fundraiser at the Chattanooga Market on Sunday, August 19, 2012.

CHATTANOOGA GIVING* $4,094: Median contribution, compared with U.S. median of $2,564* 7.3: Median percentage of income donated to religion and charities, compared with the U.S. average of 4.7 percent* $304.1 million: Total annual contributions in metro Chattanooga out of nearly $136 billion nationwide.* 25th: Chattanooga's rank among 366 metro areas in the percent of money given to charities.Source: Chronicle of Philanthropy

The average Chattanoogan gives away nearly twice as much of his or her disposable income to charities and religious groups as the typical American.

A new study of tax filings found the average Chattanoogan donated $4,094 to churches and nonprofit agencies in 2008, or $1,530 more than the U.S. average. Collectively, residents in the metropolitan Chattanooga area donated more than $304 million to charities and religious groups, according to IRS filings for the most recent data available.

The study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy released this week found that Chattanoogans, on average, gave away 7.3 percent of their income remaining after purchases for essential items such as housing, child care and food. Nationwide, the typical American donated 4.7 percent of his disposable income to churches and charities.

Fundraising experts credit Chattanooga's above-average giving to the region's higher level of church membership and the tradition of community giving and volunteer work.

"There is a legacy of giving by the major donors in town -- it's the ethos of the city," said veteran fundraiser Pete Cooper, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, one of a half-dozen major multimillion-dollar foundations in Chattanooga. "This is also a very religious town where people do make significant contributions to local churches and synagogues."

Residents in communities where religious participation is greater, especially in Mormon-rich Utah and the Bible Belt across the South, gave the greatest share of their discretionary income to charity.

The Biblical tithe, 10 percent of a person's income, is commonly preached among Christians and Jews as a way to care for others, show faith in God's provision and support the work of the church.

In Mormon teachings, Latter-day Saints are required to pay a 10 percent tithe to remain church members in good standing. That helped propel four cities in Utah -- Provo, Logan, St. George and Ogden -- to the top of all U.S. cities in the share of income donated by local residents. But 11 of the top 25 cities were in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, where many evangelical Christians are also urged to tithe.

Robert Huffaker is one such evangelical Christian who says he was convinced to begin tithing at his church more than 25 years ago.

"I was a regular contributor before, but I would give 4 to 5 percent of my income to the church and not a full tithe," said Huffaker, the 76-year-old retired president from the Chattanooga insurance company that carries his family's name. "The scriptures teach us that the reason that we work and earn money is so that we can give and my wife and I realized that we needed to begin tithing in our own lives and also in our business. After I started tithing, I have been tremendously blessed in my business and also in the joy of being able to help out a lot of tremendous ministries to the poor and others in our town."

Generous Giving

Huffaker is among the supporters of the Chattanooga-based Generous Giving mission, a 12-year-old program started by the Maclellan Foundation to encourage wealthy Christians to give beyond their tithes. Hugh O. Maclellan, a Maclellan Foundation trustee who helped start Generous Giving, often gives away up to 70 percent of his income.

"Americans are among the most generous people in the world, but our culture still tells us that our bank accounts and holdings need to be bigger, better and fatter," said Todd Harper, president of Generous Giving. "Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive and those that follow that principle I've always found to be more happy and content.

"I've never met an unhappy generous person," Harper said. "But I have met plenty of people who are wealthy, but not generous, and are unhappy."

Joseph Decosimo, the Chattanooga accountant who has headed dozens of local fundraising efforts, said giving money away helps both the donor and the recipient.

"I've helped raise a lot of money and the first thing most people want to know is if you are giving to the cause as well," Decosimo said. "I've contributed to a lot of great causes, and I've always been blessed by that giving. It's kind of selfish thing."

Decosimo quipped that his frequent fundraising has sometimes made it hard to get some folks wary of his appeals to answer his calls.

"But this is an extraordinarily generous town and much of the wealth that has been made here has been donated back to community causes to build and sustain our city," he said.

The wealth generated by Coca-Cola bottling and Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co., helped create the Maclellan, Lyndhurst, Benwood and other related foundations which collectively grew in the 1990s to more than $1 billion in value.

But for all of Chattanooga's foundation wealth, most money is still given by individuals and in Chattanooga more than half goes into the offering plates of churches or synagogues.

Wealth connection

Cooper noted that many of Chattanooga's wealthiest individuals tend to be closer in proximity and income to the poor than the wealthy in other cities. The Chronicle of Philanthropy study found that wealthy persons who live among lower-income communities tend to give more than those who are secluded from the poor.

"Many of us in Chattanooga are only one or two generations away from people who were working the land so we understand the value of education and the value of the arts," he said.

The bulk of the financial support for churches and the community's biggest citywide campaign, the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, still comes from middle-income, individual donors.

Chattanooga's United Way campaign, which supports 43 area agencies, ranks among the top 7 percent of all United Way campaigns for per capita giving and is supported each year by thousands of donors who contribute a portion of their regular paychecks to the communitywide charity.

Among the 30 comparably sized cities, Chattanooga trails only Winston-Salem, N.C., in the amount raised each year. The fall campaign kicks off Tuesday with a fundraising goal of $12 million.

"We have a strong volunteer culture in this community and when people are involved in working with nonprofits they tend to also contribute more money," said Eva Dillard, president of United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

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