Image: Postcards written by residents at an August 3 Welcome Home/First Friends rally to support the Grace Act, which would allow for increased refugee admissions.
Jersey City offers fewer opportunities to do good than other cities of similar size and demographics around the country, based on numbers of registered public charities. Jersey City has 1 registered public charity for every 435 residents, while its neighbor to the west, Newark, has 1 per every 268. Detroit offers 238 residents each a nonprofit of their own, while Oakland, CA, has a seeming excess of services, with every 186 residents per charity.
The ratio of charitable nonprofits to citizens can be a rough metric for civic engagement and health. “Nonprofits are hugely important,” says Geri Mannon, Director of the Carnegie Foundation, who emphasizes that Americans in general have a tradition of individual giving. “If you want to go back to Democracy in America by De Toqueville, that was what he found most remarkable about the US that there were so many people coming together to do amazing things.”
The 632 (as of this writing) public charities filing tax returns in Jersey City range from established groups such as Friends of Liberty State Park, Women Rising, Angela Cares, and Educational Arts Team, dozens of neighborhood organizations and PTAs, and hundreds of religious organizations. They also include lesser known entities such as something called “Academic Excellence,” which has no web site and little revenue, and the Fortune Education Foundation, which receives donations from various metal companies on the East Coast and, according to its tax returns, last gave more than $100,000 in scholarships in 2015.
Data: irs.gov. Chart: thelocaljc.org. Midsize=100,000-400,000 population
Information on public charities became publicly searchable last year, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) published online its database of tax-exempt organizations, among them “Pub 78” organizations, or charitable organizations that regularly file required tax forms. The nonprofit news site ProPublica has taken the data and made a searchable database of tax-exempt tax returns. Public charities subsume small one-to-two people organizations that raise less than $50,000 a year, robust long-term community organizations, and corporate foundations responsible for doling out millions a year.
The dearth of established non-governmental charitable and community organizations in Jersey City has led to some lost opportunities, say foundation program officers on background, when there have not been long-standing, well-governed community organizations to work with in order to distribute larger state and federal grants. Organizations in New York City or Newark have received these funds instead.
But very mission-focused organizations can survive in Jersey City, with a combination of government funding, alliances with businesses and other nonprofits, and a clear need. “We have found that people are looking for places to give to whether it’s monetary or in kind,” says Laura Collins, director of fund development at Women Rising. A formerly homeless Snyder High School student whose family was supported by Women Rising recently received national press for his 18 college admittances. That kind of press brings a surge of interest in the organization. In addition, the organization works collaboratively with others such as New City Kids or York Street Project.
Other 501c3's with robust public presences that were recently formed by local residents include Welcome Home, which helps asylees and refugees access opportunities, and Haven Adolescent Community Respite Center, which offers free counseling for local youth.
But listed charities also include “Child Literacy Inc,” with an address on Greene Street. Incorporated in 2017, it has never filed a return or created a public presence such as a web site. Some charities are near invisible: perhaps they started as a midnight brainstorm or a project of good intentions that become too much to manage. Others may be less benign, serving as tax deduction schemes or resume burnishers with little impact. The databases offer a chance for residents and watchdogs to comb through and ask questions. (If you have noticed something interesting or unusual about charities in Jersey City or after going through the databases, message us on Twitter or Instagram @thelocaljc or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Giving patterns are not only determined by individual efforts but also by larger structural factors, such as culture of trust, dominant institutions, and mobility rates of residences. Cities have localized patterns of giving, according to a 2018 report by Benjamin Sokis for the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, which based its analysis on dollars given per resident within different income tiers. The presence of many religious institutions or universities can lead to a more “giving” culture, for instance; at the same time, one or two extremely large nonprofits can depress the total number of givers, as in Salt Lake City, where the Mormon church dominates. Utah, the report points out, is among the most charitable state in the nation in terms of individual giving.
Equally important, writes Sokis, are regional histories and philosophies toward philanthropy and the presence of local industries from tech in Silicon Valley to private-public community foundations in Cleveland. Notable in Jersey City are developers, for instance, and finance institutions, some of whom have strict policies about to whom and what scale of organizations they will give. One notable example is Goldman Sachs, with an office tower in Jersey City, which has an international giving programs that donates to a national fund for Syrian refugees; locally, the institution encourages employees to volunteer at schools or libraries.
In Hudson County, the patronage legacy, where politicians align expect supporters to show up and donate to particular charities or show up for particular causes in exchange for jobs or favors, is alive and well, according to many reports.
At the same time, highly transient populations of residents such as those in Washington DC can undermine strong giving cultures. “I believe and I don’t know if this is founded in data that it’s harder to fundraise in Hudson County, where a lot more people are renting than buying,” says Collins of Women Rising. Data does in fact show that Jersey City has one of the highest proportion of renters versus owners in the country, at 70 percent, the second greatest share in the country, after Newark.
In general, Americans give more than ever in terms of total dollar amounts, around $440 billion in 2018. Yet while total dollars of nonprofit giving is up, smaller donors are giving less, a trend nonprofit researchers say is troubling, as it reflects the potential fraying of that national fabric that De Toqueville noticed nearly 200 years ago and a growing wealth gap in giving (it may also reflect federal tax law changes from 2017). “There is nowhere near the degree of alarm there should be about the loss of ordinary people as donors,” write the editors of Nonprofit Quarterly.
If it’s any consolation to Jersey City residents, however, other New Jersey cities are even worse off: Patterson and Elizabeth have 446 and 592 residents per charity. In general, in New Jersey giving by New Jersey citizens and nonprofits is relatively weaker than in other states, ranking 22nd according to one analysis, given the overall wealth of the state, which has the 2nd highest median income in the country. A bill currently going through the NJ state senate aims to help individual donors make up the difference and to deduct donations from their state taxes.