Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Give thanks by giving back

Members of the Yoga Seed Collective demonstrate exercises during the Big Day of Giving event at Cesar Chavez Park in Sacramento on May 5. It brought in nearly $5.6 million, but the Sacramento region ranks below average in charitable donations.
Members of the Yoga Seed Collective demonstrate exercises during the Big Day of Giving event at Cesar Chavez Park in Sacramento on May 5. It brought in nearly $5.6 million, but the Sacramento region ranks below average in charitable donations. Sacramento Bee file

You can tell a lot about a community’s strength and unity by how much money and time its residents are willing to give to worthy causes.

So as we gather to give thanks this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how well we’re doing at sharing our blessings.

Not so hot, it turns out. The Sacramento region and California are below par on the most recent report cards on donating to charities and volunteering.

Between 2011 and 2013, an average of 25 percent of Californians reported that they had volunteered. That volunteerism rate ranks a mediocre 35th among the states, far below the 35 percent or higher in states including Utah and Idaho, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service.

In 2013, 26 percent of residents in Sacramento volunteered, ranking a so-so 33rd among the nation’s 51 largest metro areas. While it averaged out to nearly 35 hours per resident, it’s well behind places we like to measure ourselves against, including Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, which all rank in the top 10.

In terms of giving to charity, California is also merely average. It ranks 25th, with a typical household donating 4.4 percent of discretionary income, though because of our huge population and relatively high incomes, total contributions are the highest of any state, accounting for $1 of every $8 given to charity.

Sacramento residents gave 2.4 percent of their income, ranking 43rd among the 50 largest cities in 2012, behind Riverside, Los Angeles and San Diego. Sacramento’s rate had dropped 4.4 percent since 2006, according to the most recent report from The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

In the Sacramento region, there may be cause for optimism. The Big Day of Giving – an online 24-hour fundraising blitz fueled by social media – is going strong heading into its third edition, scheduled for May 3.

On May 5 this year, 529 nonprofit groups brought in nearly $5.6 million, beating the $5 million goal and surpassing the 2014 total by 83 percent. Significantly, nearly two-thirds of donations were between $25 and $50, and 30 percent of the 23,000 donors were new. Sacramento came out well in comparisons with other cities that took part.

But it’s not definite that overall giving has increased, or that the “giving gap” between the Sacramento region and the rest of the nation has narrowed. A 2011 study done for the Sacramento Region Community Foundation found that the average household donated $365 less a year than the national average, a gap totaling $250 million.

The foundation, which coordinates the Big Day, hasn’t done a planned follow-up study yet to measure its impact. But it says that all signs are pointing to a rise in donations – not just people giving on the Big Day what they would have given another time anyway. The foundation cities anecdotal evidence, plus a survey in which most nonprofits reported that total gifts went up in 2014. A similar survey is planned in January.

I donated a little during the Big Day, but I give mostly at the office. I’ve routinely signed up for workplace giving programs, benefiting the United Way and other community charities. With cash-poor government agencies pulling back, nonprofits need all the help they can get to fill gaps in the safety net.

I’ve also tried to do my bit volunteering. Over the years, I’ve been a Big Brother and an elementary school tutor. For several years, I was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, though my skills were limited to painting and basic hammering, and there were those times I got a little woozy under the baking sun and nearly fell off a roof installing shingles.

The single proudest accomplishment in my life, however, was being a house leader on a Habitat project in North Carolina, raising the money, recruiting volunteers and showing up every Saturday morning for nearly a year. Yes, those were tears hiding behind my sunglasses as we sang “Amazing Grace” at the house dedication during Thanksgiving week in 1999.

Not to get too preachy, but the time I gave to Habitat was more than repaid. I made friends, discovered I could be a leader and learned how to be more selfless, in both my professional and personal lives.

I’m sure many of us have similar experiences from volunteering. Thinking and caring about others – isn’t that what we should be doing as we count our own blessings? And isn’t that a good way to bring the entire community together?

California may lead the country in a lot of ways, and we in Sacramento have a lot to be proud of. But measured by donating and volunteering, we’re only fair to middling. We should aim higher – food for thought this Thanksgiving.