By Eli Segall (contact) ( iStockphoto )
By Eli Segall, Vegas Inc. and U.S. News Agency / Asian
TweetLas Vegas is known around the world as a place to splurge and spend big.
Locals, however, don’t have the same reputation when it comes to charitable giving.
Nevada ranks low nationally for philanthropy. Charitable donations plunged here in recent years, faster than in many other states.
The state used to be a leader in giving, but the down economy forced many donors to tighten their wallets.
Nevertheless, nonprofit groups say they have found other ways to support their operations, and community leaders remain optimistic that people’s giving spirit will return. Many in the nonprofit community point to the recent opening of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts as a sign that the region is starting to, once again, get better at giving.
It’s unclear exactly how much money people in Las Vegas and Nevada donate to charity each year. The Internal Revenue Service compiles that data based on people’s tax returns, but not everyone who gives claims deductions.
Still, according to the data that is available, Nevada used to be one of the most philanthropic states.
Residents claimed an average of $1,373 in charitable contributions in 2004, making the state the 9th best nationally for charitable giving, according to IRS data compiled by the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics. The District of Columbia topped the list with an average of $2,388 in donations, followed by Utah, Maryland, New York, Connecticut, Georgia, California and Virginia.
By 2009, however, Nevada fell to 37th for philanthropy. Residents’ average contribution dropped to $913 — a 34 percent slide, the worst in the nation during that time.
Nevadans’ average income, on the other hand, fell by only 6 percent during that period. Income levels dropped from $57,684 in 2004 (the 7th best in the country) to $54,319 in 2009 (the 18th best.)
Why, then, did charitable giving drop so sharply?
Wealthier Las Vegans — the same people who typically gave large amounts to nonprofits — were hit harder here than in other regions, according to former UNLV president Carol Harter, who helped lead the school’s $500 million “Invent the Future” fundraising campaign. (That effort reached its goal in 2009, about a year behind schedule.)
“A lot of donors simply deferred or cut in half what they said they’d do,” she said.
During the boom years, charitable donations were strong because the local economy was roaring with new development — shopping centers, housing, casinos and other projects. While raising money for charity is never hassle-free, it was easier during flush times when locals weren’t worried about their finances, said Keith Resnick, president of The Lili Claire Foundation, a Las Vegas nonprofit group that runs medical clinics for children with autism, Down syndrome and other conditions.
As the economy plunged, Las Vegans saw their earnings and holdings evaporate. Because the valley’s economy lacks diversity, most people struck it rich in just a few areas, such as housing, commercial property and gaming. Those were the same sectors hardest hit.
“The wealth came quickly, and the wealth left quickly,” Resnick said.
AnnaMarie Johnson knows first-hand what nonprofit groups are going through. The executive director of Nevada Legal Services said donations to the Las Vegas-based legal aid group are down. That includes contributions from government agencies, the organization’s main source of funding.
Because of the drop in aid, the group closed its Carson City office in January and laid off four workers, bringing its total employee count to 41.
Donations for individuals also have shown “a pretty steady decline,” Johnson said. When she speaks with prospective donors, they tell her their own businesses are faring poorly.
They say they “just can’t give the way that they used to,” she said.
So Johnson’s group, which provides legal counsel to low-income Nevadans, tried something new in March. It held an office supplies drive. The group asked law firms in Southern Nevada and Reno to donate office supplies, which usually comprise about 5 percent of the organization’s budget.
The initiative helped cut the group’s bill in half, Johnson said. One firm in Reno showed up with a truck-bed full of printer paper, three-ringed binders, file folders and other items.
“We had a great response,” Johnson said.
Likewise, nonprofits have had to get creative to fill gaps created by the drop in charitable giving.
The Lili Claire Foundation has failed to reach its annual budget goal for about five years. The shortfall has led to a very long waiting list of children who need to be seen, Resnick said.
The group used to court donors through direct mail, social events and an annual gala dinner. It recently responded to the contraction in giving by organizing a new type of fundraiser: a fair called “Nevada Wild Fest.”
This year’s event will be held Oct. 25-28 at the Rio and will include a haunted maze, carnival rides and thrill rides.
Tickets cost up to $9 — a far cry from the $10,000 Resnick collected for a table of 10 at a gala dinner. Nevertheless, the fair helps make the foundation more visible, and the money it generates funds programs, Resnick said. Revenue accounts for about 85 percent of the Lili Claire Foundation’s annual budget.
“We’re generating enough funding to keep our doors open,” he said.
Meanwhile, the March opening of the $470 million Smith Center downtown is providing hope for those in the nonprofit community. Las Vegas often is labeled as a city that’s not philanthropic, but the Smith Center was built during the height of the recession, said Julie Murray, president and CEO of Moonridge Group, a Las Vegas consulting firm that works with foundations.
And while those involved in local fundraising and charity say they realize people will likely take years to ramp up giving to the levels seen during the boom, they note that the Smith Center could help usher more donations into the region and serve as a reminder that, even in the worst of times, Las Vegans still donate their time and money to good causes.
Said Murray: “I hope that we as a community will start to get recognized as a community with heart.”