Baltimore likes to call itself the ‘City of Firsts,’ which has given it a proud heritage of innovation, civic uplift, and educational creativity. The city has struggled, like so many others on the eastern seaboard and in the upper midwest, with declining industrialization and population shifts to exurbs and to the Sun Belt. And yet, perhaps for the same reasons that such cities have endured such flight, Baltimore has not been ravaged by the housing bubble and Wall Street bailout that have so gravely weakened the economy generally and boom towns in places like Florida and Nevada specifically. One of the striking things about Baltimore, in good times and bad, is its long and deep tradition of civic philanthropy that goes back into nineteenth-century industrialism and continues in twenty-first century online and knowledge-based communities. We would like to celebrate that tradition today.
Though not a native of the area, George Peabody spent a good deal of his business life in Baltimore, and he showed his appreciation by giving some of his largest philanthropic grants (in money, properties, and educational resources). In his book “All The Money In The World” (Random House, 2007) has this to say about George Peabody: “Even before the Carnegies and Rockefellers became philanthropic legends, there was George Peabody, considered to be the father of modern philanthropy.” Peabody made his wealth in dry goods and cotton at the turn of the nineteenth century, then used that capital to finance railroads in the US and Britain in the middle of that century. He gave the buildings, library, and resources to found the Peabody Library and Musical Institute at Johns Hopkins University, for example. And he sought to improve housing for the working classes around the harbor, whose labor he needed for his overseas shipping interests.
A generation later Johns Hopkins used his fortune made in groceries and dry goods, and then (like Peabody) with the railroads to ensure the foundation of a university that bears his name. His Quaker roots instilled in him a philanthropy based on religious morality, a foundation his father gave him by doing such things as freeing his slaves and asking Johns and his siblings to help work the family farm until debts could be paid.
That tradition of philanthropy in and to Baltimore by the titans of finance carries on today, with the likes of George Soros, about whom we reported earlier this week. Soros’s donations to the Open Society Institute in Baltimore have been in the many millions of dollars and are likely to continue beyond his lifetime. But while the big-splash – nay, gargantuan-splash – donations get the lion’s share of attention, Baltimore has a strong new tradition of micro-donations and giving circles that do not get the attention they deserve.
Paul Sturm recently shined a spotlight on the modern spin to the tradition for BMoreMedia.com:
If manufacturing is the muscle that historically propelled Baltimore’s economy, with higher education providing the brains, then the nonprofit sector –particularly the neighborhood and community-based organizations often operating on a shoestring — has earned its place as the city’s heart and soul. Baltimore and its surrounding region are blessed with an abundance of organizations that make a difference every day in the quality of community living.
Over 10,000 non-profit organizations are registered in the greater Baltimore region, and they employ over 85,500 people, who in turn help tens of thousands with a multiplier effect that is the envy of Austan Goolsbee. Sturm spoke with those who work in the educational, housing, greening, lending/finance, and conflict-resolution sectors, and they all stress not just the breadth of benefits such organizations bring to the city, but the fact that such mega-philanthropic organizations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Open Society Institute are based in Baltimore, which act as magnets for other such organizations.
The most recent development, though, is the ‘giving circle’ type of organization that draws like-minded, but not wealthy, micro-philanthropists to pool their contributions and use social media to broaden their reach at almost no cost. Lionel Foster at UrbaniteBaltimore.com ran a story on The Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle at the end of 2007, which is part of a movement that really picked up steam at the turn of the millennium.
The rapid growth of giving circles—most were founded since 2000—may be due to the fact that they allow different combinations of cultures, institutions, and motivations to complement each other. In many instances, giving circles are one of many charitable investment tools offered by a local community foundation. Charitable foundations take their cues from nineteenth-century industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, who was among the first to found one: They have a board of directors and manage large sums of money, which they distribute in the form of grants. Private foundations do not solicit funds themselves; instead, they distribute money on behalf of a person, family, or corporation. Community foundations are trusted with the cash and assets, donated within a person’s lifetime or as part of the estate, of multiple donors to fund projects within a particular geographic area.
Such circles raise thousands, not millions, of dollars, but they can target that money in a wonderfully efficient manner. Moreover, they bring people together who might not otherwise interact, which strengthens the social fabric of the city and keeps people involved in the long-term issues that concern everyone.
Baltimore’s strong tradition of philanthropy is 150 years young, and it has evolved as the city’s inhabitants and their challenges have evolved. Though the image of Baltimore has been tarnished by drugs and crime (real and as relayed by shows like “The Wire”) over the last generation or so, the foundations for regeneration are strong and the renaissance of the city is being driven by activists with deep and not-so-deep pockets. But they all seem to share a first heart-and-soul desire to keep it Charm City.