The Most Charitable Cities of 2020 Will Surprise You

Minnesota is experiencing one of the worst COVID spikes in America. In May, it had nearly 10 percent unemployment. Protests in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd that month laid bare a problematic police force and cost local businesses billions — and those were the few that were still left standing, given the mass shuttering of smaller shops amid pandemic-related economic closures. Overall, it’s been a tough year for the city.

Yet, despite the challenges facing its residents …

Minneapolis has proven to be the most generous U.S. city in 2020.

In fact, it tops the list with second-place St. Paul, its Twin Cities neighbor, meaning that the two most generous cities across the 2,600 miles between America’s two coasts are within an 18-mile stretch in Minnesota. That’s according to a recent study by outdoor services provider LawnStarter, which compared the 150 biggest U.S. cities across 12 indicators of philanthropy, from charitable giving to volunteering rate to the number of food banks.

The fact that Minneapolis tops the list may surprise outsiders. But those who grew up there, like Stanford humanities professor Josiah Ober — he moved there in 1965 for high school and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1975 — says the culture is one of stunning generosity. “For a long time, the city had a culture of giving back. The wealthy families — the Pillsburys, the Daltons — were keen on doing things for their community,” he says, a tradition that continues today. While Ober admits that the hearts of men are difficult to pin in social science, he also says that there are cultures, like the one he found in Minnesota, that more or less assume people will “act that way: They give, even when they are not so terribly well-off themselves.”

The LawnStarter study found that larger cities ranked higher across the board, in part demonstrating that there’s often a greater need for shelter beds, soup kitchens and food banks in such places. That may partly explain why four of the top 10 cities were in the Northwest: Portland, Oregon, was third; Vancouver, B.C., was fifth; and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington placed seventh and ninth, respectively. The West Coast has a large homeless population combined with high housing prices. “Generosity tends to sprout where it’s required most,” says Jeff Herman, the managing editor who oversaw the study.

Despite the reputation of Southern hospitality, the South didn’t have a single city at the top of the list. In fact, the region did relatively poorly across the study, with its top city (Raleigh, North Carolina) ranking 23rd. Eight of the 10 least generous cities are in the South — five in Texas. A major contributor is that those cities have comparatively fewer public services to which to donate, says Herman: “That’s not to say the residents of these cities aren’t generous, but the lack of services cuts down on volunteer opportunities and on ways to address community needs.”

Struggling Southern border towns Laredo and Brownsville bottomed out the list, which could be attributed to a combination of poverty and a dearth of support institutions. “Brownsville has always been bottom of the barrel when it comes to resources,” Kim Hunter, an immigration lawyer who works throughout the poor Rio Grande Valley, told OZY in July. “Everything about the valley is so isolated.” And yet, Baltimore, one of America’s poorest cities, ranked 10th on the list — possibly because the Maryland business hub has a large number of nonprofits for locals to give their time and money to.

Many experts thought charitable giving would dip in 2020, given the economic recession caused by a global pandemic. But giving was up 7.5 percent in the first half of the year, from the same point in 2019. Giving Tuesday saw a 25 percent increase in donations, with PayPal recording record transactions during the annual event. Still, Laurie Styron, executive director of the nonprofit Charity Watch, warns that the giving hasn’t been equally distributed. Foundations, corporations and high-dollar individuals have upped their giving, but much of that has gone to bigger charities.

Meanwhile, smaller charities have seen their revenue dip by nearly a fifth, with donations to human services organizations dropping by 10 percent last quarter in recent estimates. Those nonprofits typically have less savings to draw on yet are seeing increases in local demand for their services. “The financial situation for charities is analogous to what’s occurring in the economy at large and the misleading way in which stock market gains are often cited as being symbolic of how the economy is doing overall,” Styron says, even as the average worker is under- or unemployed or facing wage freezes amid rising living costs.

Cultures that encourage a spirit of generosity tend to create more givers. Ober, who recently founded the Stanford Civics Initiative to encourage better citizenship, has the University of Minnesota listed in his will. “I didn’t pay much of anything because tuition was low — it was supported by the state. They were good to me, and I ought to give it back to them,” Ober says. And so the generous spirit gets paid forward.


Numbers and factoids — fodder for your next cocktail party.