Face it, Howard County has earned bragging rights for a lot of things — a top-rated public school system and the nation’s best library system, as well as rankings as the third-most technologically advanced community in the nation, one of America’s best places to live, second in the nation for advanced degrees and the wealthiest county in Maryland, to name but a few.

Which makes the county’s rate of charitable giving all the more surprising — and nothing to brag about.

In 2014, The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked Howard County in the bottom quarter of all U.S. counties in individual household giving, at a rate of 2.7% of adjusted gross income. That’s well below less affluent counties in Maryland. Prince George’s County households gave 5.2% of their adjusted growth income, on average.

The numbers were so startling that The Chronicle featured Howard County in its October 2014 issue under the byline: “Affluent Suburb Struggles to Make Residents See Need for Local Giving.”

‘Behind the Begonias’

Why are rates of giving in Howard County so low? The following story may shine a light on one reason.

After Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he looked worldwide for examples of communities that had transitioned from separation to inclusion. Howard County was one of them.

At the request of the U.S. State Department, The Rouse Company was asked to host a South African delegation to describe how Howard County evolved from its rural roots to a planned community known internationally for its racial, religious and socioeconomic diversity. The delegation was taken on a bus tour of Howard County, from interfaith centers to village centers, neighborhoods to iconic buildings.

As the bus passed the subsidized housing units on Twin Rivers Parkway, a member of the delegation jumped up and shouted, “Stop the bus. I missed the low-income house.” When it was explained that in fact the bus was right in front of the low-income housing units, she then asked wonderingly, “Behind the begonias?”

From this visitor’s reaction, it was clear that the beautifully-planned community had meticulously hidden the images of poverty and need. What is now clear is that there are tangible unintended consequences to shielding from view community needs.

Hidden in Plain Sight

The Howard County Public School System identified more than 450 homeless school-aged children last year. One of every five students in the public schools is eligible for free and reduced school meals, and 22,000 children and adults rely on the Howard County Food Bank each year to feed themselves and their families.

Hundreds of children are eligible but unable to participate in Head Start because the program is underfunded.

Major institutions like Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College, the Maryland University of Integrative Health and the Howard County Arts Council all depend upon the generosity and support of local residents.

We Can Make a Huge Impact

More than 300,000 people now live in Howard County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Data also shows that more than one-third of county residents earn $100,000 a year or more. If one-third of the residents gave an additional $20 to community nonprofits this year, the $2 million raised could make significant resources available. How many communities have the means to have such an impact?

Experience has indicated that most people will respond generously if they know of a need and are asked to help. The Community Foundation of Howard County (formerly The Columbia Foundation) has partnered with a group of nonprofit-, government-, education-, corporate- and faith-based community leaders to change the trajectory of the rate of charitable giving in Howard County.

Residents will be challenged to sign a pledge to “Live Generously” and increase their levels of giving. Progress will be measured by the giving rates published in 2018 when The Chronicle updates its “How America Gives” data (based on 2016 tax filings).

Imagine the results if every household in Howard County stepped up its commitment by just 5%? Give Howard County another reason to set a positive example, and teach our children the impact each individual can make.

Look for opportunities to take the pledge in 2015 at various community events and locales such as The Mall in Columbia, nonprofit organizations, grocery stores, faith-based institutions and other local gathering spots around the county.

Beverly White-Seals is president and CEO of The Community Foundation of Howard County. She can be reached at [email protected] or 410-730-7840.