The Source of Door County’s Generosity

Door County is the most generous county in Wisconsin. As I wrote in the Pulse last month, the “How America Gives” study reviewed more than 35 million tax returns and calculated the average discretionary income (leftover income after a community’s cost of living is accounted for) in each community in the United States. Then they determined the percentage of that discretionary income which is given to charity in each year. It’s by far the most accurate way to compare one community’s generosity to another.

Door County residents give an average of 4.1 percent of discretionary income to charity each year, which is the highest of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. We donate 21 percent more than the average Wisconsin family. We also are dramatically more generous than our neighboring counties. Door County residents donate 28 percent more than Outagamie County residents, 32 percent more than Brown and Kewaunee County, 33 percent more than Manitowoc and Marinette, and 52 percent more than Oconto.

Which begs the question, why are we so generous as compared to the rest of Wisconsin? There seem to be two primary factors at play that drive Door County’s generosity.

First, the fact that our community is home to families from an incredibly wide range of income groups likely has a significant impact on our level of giving.

When I’ve walked down the aisles of Main Street Market I have run into friends who live on fixed incomes and encountered prominent philanthropists who are worth millions. When I sit in the bleachers to watch my kids play in Sturgeon Bay school gymnasiums sometimes I’m next to families who live in the biggest houses on Bay Shore Drive and other occasions find me sitting with folks who live in the smallest of apartments.

This is one of the wonderful aspects of Door County. We don’t separate ourselves by income groups to the same degree you’d find in many other communities. In Door County we all tend to shop at the same stores, play in the same parks, attend the same local festivals, and worship at the same churches. This has a dramatic impact on our willingness to give back – particularly to the areas of health and human needs.

When your pastor talks to you on Sunday about the importance of giving back to the less fortunate, it isn’t some abstract concept of a family whose path you never cross. Chances are that some of those families in need are sitting in the pews next to you.

When you go grocery shopping in Door County, you might very well see families who are using food stamps to make ends meet during these tough economic times.

It’s the economic diversity of Door County which tends to make us more willing to share of our resources because the people we’re helping are people we see every day. And, in fact, the “How America Gives” study has the statistics to demonstrate just how dramatic an effect income diversity can have on a community’s generosity.

Areas with a high density of high-income families (defined as communities where 40 percent or more of families have an annual income of at least $200,000) tend to give a very low 2.8 percent of their discretionary income to charity. Areas with a healthy mix of families from all income groups give an average of 4.2 percent to charity. In other words, mixed-income communities give an incredible 50 percent more to charity than high-income communities!

It’s really quite logical when you think about it. As human beings we’re hard wired to care about each other. When confronted with the reality of neighbors who are having a difficult time, we tend to respond and lend a helping hand. But if we lock ourselves away in “exclusive” neighborhoods with cement walls and guard gates, we simply don’t know as many people who are having a rough time in this economy. And thus we tend to give less to charity.

Thankfully, Door County is very much a mixed-income community, and it’s one of the primary reasons folks are so generous up here.

The second factor that makes us more generous than other Wisconsin communities is something I’ve written about many times. Quite simply, charity is more important to Door County than any other community in Wisconsin.

American Folklore Theatre, Birch Creek, Midsummer’s Music, Peninsula Players and countless other arts charities bring people to Door County every year. Crossroads at Big Creek, The Ridges Sanctuary, the Land Trust, and the many park “friends” groups ensure that ours remains a verdant community.

In other words, charities are the cultural treasures that we love, and charities are the stewards and protectors of our cherished environmental treasures. These organizations are a major reason tourists visit us and why our seasonal residents come back year after year. Charity helps drive our economic engine. So it’s no wonder we’re so generous in Door County. It’s not just a gift, it’s also an investment in maintaining our remarkable quality of life.

While Door County is the most generous county in Wisconsin, the “How America Gives” study also found that Wisconsin as a whole ranks a miserable 45th out of the 50 states. Even though Door County leads the state by giving 4.1 percent of its discretionary income to charity, we’re still 13 percent below the national average. That’s a troubling statistic, but alas, I’ve run out of column space, so we’ll examine some of the causes behind this next month.