Is America a compassionate place? It’s easy to think otherwise if you spend lots of spare time gaping at high-decibel political debates on “Anderson Cooper 360” or trolling partisan sites on social media. Certainly, no one can argue that the United States is a bitterly and perhaps intractably divided nation these days. But if you’re searching, hoping, praying for some sunlight, here it is:
America is a nation of givers.
People across the country, far from the media spotlight, are making a big difference in their communities, shelling out both cash for the needy and lots of their own time and effort. In fact, you could make the case that the urge to do good is built into the American psyche, whether shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway or donating a kidney. We like to help. It defines us.
In 2015, Americans donated over $373 billion to charities, the highest amount ever, according to Giving USA, a tracking firm. And while the volunteering rate, according to some statistics, has been dropping (it hit 24.9% in 2015, its lowest point since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began measuring it in 2002), those numbers don’t tell the full story. The forms of altruism that are popular with millennials and just about everyone else with a Wi-Fi connection—online fundraising, social media campaigns, and purchases that benefit charities (like concert tickets and T-shirts)—are ticking up. And each year, pro bono work from businesses becomes less of an afterthought, more of a central mission.
“The U.S. is a generous country,” says William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who co-authored a study on nations and empathy. “America is always coming to other countries’ aid whenever there’s a disaster. And hand in hand with that, we also have an unusually high volunteering rate.”
You know something? We feel better already.
To find out the most caring cities in the country, we ranked the 250 largest cities using the following criteria:*
Ready? Let’s get out there and do some good.
1. Provo, UT
Volunteer rate: 7.3%
Income donated: 6.4%
Residents of Provo, a metro about 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, donate an impressive 6.4% of their income to charities, according to tax return data from the IRS. It’s the highest rate in the U.S. As you might have guessed, religion is a driving factor: Provo and neighboring Orem were deemed the most religious metropolitan areas in a 2012 Gallup poll. In the overall population, 88% are members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which calls for members to hand over 10% of their income to charity—a practice called “tithing.”
“The contribution is voluntary, but members who attend temple services are expected to be full tithing payers—with the hope that there’s blessing attached to those sacrifices.” says Alexander Baugh, a religious studies professor at Brigham Young University, As an active Mormon himself, Baugh says he doesn’t miss the donated cash a bit. Good for you, Alex!
Provo residents aren’t stingy with their time, either. Volunteers can be found helping victims of child abuse at the Children’s Justice Center and serving meals for the needy at the Food and Care Coalition.
Volunteer rate: 12.7%
Income donated: 2.1%
Ann Arbor earned its rep as a progressive college town back in the 1960s, and it remains a conscientious, civic-minded community. This city adopted a living wage of $14.43 in 2016, while the state minimum wage was only $8.90. It’s a caring place.
And boy, do these folks love their books!
In “America’s most educated city,” according to WalletHub, nonprofits look not just to provide food and shelter, but also to advocate for education and literacy. The unique Book Industry Charitable Foundation provides financial assistance to independent booksellers, while the nonprofit writing center 826Michigan tutors school-aged students in writing.
“The communities are extremely generous, not just with funding, but with their time,” says Amanda Uhle, executive director of 826Michigan. “We receive tens and thousands of volunteering hours, tutoring students and teaching classes. Just from Michigan State alone, we get students, staff, and teachers, all pitching in.”
3. Richmond, VA
Volunteer rate: 12%
Income donated: 2.6%
If you’re searching for evidence of generosity in Richmond, look no further than the huge piles of canned goods and clothing collected at the Central Virginia Food Bank, or maybe the millions of dollars donated to assist nonprofits like Substance Abuse Free Environment Inc. in combating drug and alcohol abuse among teens.
Interested in buying a water buffalo to help an Indonesian family with the hard work of farming? How about a well and hand pump for a community in Afghanistan? Those are just two of the many ways Childfund International, a Richmond-based nonprofit, assists more than 15 million children and their families worldwide.
With more than 1,400 public charities, the calendar is full of fundraising events all year long in this town.
4. Durham, NC
Volunteer rate: 12.6%
Income donated: 2.5%
Known as “the City of Medicine,” Durham lives up to its reputation, with a physician-to-population ratio 4.5 times the national average. The pediatricians and nurses at the highly regarded Duke Children’s Hospital treat 200,000 kids a year. And nonprofits like the Monday Life are on a mission to improve healing environments for hospitalized children, by offering them iPads and music therapy.
While the rest of the country is experiencing critical shortages of special education teachers, kids with special needs (and their parents) get a break in Durham: The concentration of special ed teachers is 10% higher than the national average.
Volunteer rate: 14.3%
Income donated: 2.7%
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
Charleston thrives on its reputation as the center of Southern hospitality. So when people learned that the only grocery store in Eastside, a low-income neighborhood, had closed abruptly last summer, they stepped in to help. Locals raised $46,000 to fund a bus route that would take the elderly, disabled, and those without cars to the nearest grocery store.
“It just seems the right thing to do,” says attorney Neil Robinson, one of those who chipped in. “Those of us blessed with more means are obligated to help those with little means. Charlestonians by nature are generous. It’s a Southern thing—people are friendly and kind to one another.”
Local nonprofits here also have international reach: Water Mission International works to get safe drinking water for low-income communities in Africa and Asia; and Palmetto Medical Initiative provides medical care to kids in Masindi, Uganda.
6. Atlanta, GA
Volunteer rate: 13.2%
Income donated: 3.8%
Hero Images/Getty Images
When Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti last year, more than 300 aid workers from CARE, an Atlanta-based organization, were in the field providing stricken Haitians with clean drinking water, food, and emergency supplies.
Charitable giving is also ingrained in the mission of many Atlanta corporations. Coca-Cola offers to double-match its employees’ individual donations; the soda titan donated $117.3 million in 2015. Home Depot prioritizes in helping veterans, and has improved 2,500 homes for vets since 2011.
Volunteer rate: 15%
Income donated: 1.8%
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Six miles from downtown Washington, DC, Alexandria is, by some standards, the charity capital of America. The nation’s three largest charities—United Way, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities USA—are all based here. For a city with a population of less than 150,000, there are 1,300 public nonprofits, covering fields like disaster aid, military family service, and global child welfare.
While its proximity to Washington doesn’t hurt, the fact that Alexandria is among the wealthiest cities in the country certainly has something to do with its residents’ generosity. The median household income in Alexandria is $89,134, almost 65% higher than the national median.
Volunteer rate: 10.5%
Income donated: 2.9%
Within days of the Louisiana floods last summer, truckloads of bottled water, dry food, and clean clothes were already making their way to Baton Rouge from Birmingham. The same community-wide response also helped Birmingham get through disasters ranging from the 1873 cholera epidemic to the 2011 tornadoes that swept through the state.
Birmingham is located in the heart of the Bible Belt, and its inhabitants’ charitable impulses are influenced by a religious sense of duty. More than half of its population read the Good Book regularly, according to the American Bible Society. The altruism is needed here, since almost one-third of the population lives in poverty.
9. Eugene, OR
Volunteer rate: 12.5%
Income donated: 2.1%
Nestled in Central Oregon’s river valley and surrounded by lush forests, the outdoor lifestyle in Oregon’s Emerald City not only breeds sociable folks but also a number of conservation-minded charitable organizations. A perfect example is Northwest Youth Group, a job-training program that educates young people who risk falling through the cracks, and teaches them life skills through nature conservation work.
“Eugene has an enormous number of nonprofits. People who are supporting nonprofits don’t just support one, but three to eight organizations at the same time,” says Natalie Whitson, development officer of Northwest Youth Group.
Social equality is so close to hearts in Eugene that it’s written into the city government’s guidelines. Rural Development Initiatives, an economic development group, was formed in response to the downturn in farming, helping to provide badly needed financial assistance and job training.
10. Scottsdale, AZ
Volunteer rate: 15.3%
Income donated: 2.1%
Photo courtesy of Mini Angel Eyes
Every Thursday, kids at Childhelp, a nonprofit that helps victims of child abuse, look forward to receiving a special guest—a miniature therapy horse named Raleigh. Just check out those gentle brown eyes and soft, sandy mane! Aww. Joey Ogburn, founder of Mini Angel Eyes, and her three therapy horses spend up to 40 hours a week visiting those in need—from children’s facilities to senior centers and veterans centers. The nonprofit is funded purely by donations.
“They are the most generous people I’ve ever met,” says Ogburn. “As soon as they hear the story of Raleigh, meet him, and see the lives he touches, they’re glad to help us out.”
The city has 14 animal shelters that care for way more than just stray dogs and cats. Domestic rabbits live happily in a no-kill environment at Tranquility Trail Animal Sanctuary, while hawks and eagles receive help at the Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Foundation before being released into the wild.
* Percentage of income donated is calculated from the amount contributed out of a city’s total adjusted gross income, using tax return data from the Internal Revenue Service.
Data source: realtor.com, Internal Revenue Service, Nielsen, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, animalshelter.org.
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