Shortly after Maria Chavez-Wilcox took the helm of the Orange County United Way three years ago, a prominent corporate CEO walked her to his office window and asked her what she saw.
Beautiful buildings, clean, tree-lined streets and Mercedes-Benz cars parked at the curb, she said.
That vision of peaceful chic, shared by many of the county's well-to-do, would be her main obstacle to raising money to combat hunger, homelessness and poverty, he said. Those who have rarely see the have-nots, he warned her.
His words were prophetic, she said.
Over the last three years Chavez-Wilcox has pondered the chasm between the county's robust economy and its meager donations to charity.
While Orange County has historically been disappointing to charities in terms of dollar giving, that history is all the more remarkable in light of a recent Urban Institute study that shows Orange county should be in about the top 10% of metropolitan areas as a place where fund-raisers could expect largess.
In the study, a former policy analyst for the United Nations now doing graduate work at MIT measured the likelihood of charitable giving in more than 2,900 counties nationwide. Researcher Josh Galper looked not only at an area's wealth--in his terms, "economic capital"--but also at what he called its "social capital."
The phrase, coined by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, applies to factors likely to create strong community networks.
Communities with high civic involvement, church membership, volunteer organizations, newspaper readership and percentage of college-educated people also are likely to be rich in social capital--and thus generous givers.
The theory is that people with strong social ties to the community are likely to act on its behalf.
Wealthy communities, Galper said, do not necessarily outrank middle-class communities on social capital, or on giving.
"There are quite a number of places where there aren't a lot of rich people and not a lot of poor people, but say where incomes are moderate and people read the paper," Galper said. "Those places scored very high on goodwill--or social capital--and giving."
But Orange County's giving doesn't fit with its ranking on either scale.
When Galper ran the data ranking 2,972 counties, Orange County scored well, although not among the top givers. The picture looked as pleasing to him as it did to Wilcox when standing at the CEO's office window.
The county has low unemployment, healthy salaries and decent Monday through Friday newspaper circulation. This last factor is considered an indication of how interested people are in the welfare of their neighbors and the community around them, Galper said.
The county ranked 196th among the 2,972 in economic capital and 275th in social capital--both well within the top 10%.
By comparison, Los Angeles County, which had lower salaries and dramatically lower newspaper readership, ranked 2,349th in wealth and 1070th in social capital. Ventura County was 245th in economic capital and 490th in social wealth.
Galper acknowledges that his rankings don't always match reality.
"This is a methodology, but it's not the final word in pinpointing charitable giving," Galper said. "It's a tool to be used by scholars or government agencies or nonprofits."
But the reality of giving in Orange County--or the lack thereof--is complex.
Overall giving in Orange county dropped last year, according to the recent annual survey of residents conducted by UC Irvine. Agencies serving the poor typically see a bonanza of goodwill during the holidays, then scramble for help the rest of the year.
The county historically has been viewed as tight-fisted:
A 1996 Times survey found 43% of local residents hadn't given any money to local charities, and in 1993, a widely recognized report by Princeton University found only six of 85 major metropolitan areas had lower per capita contributions to nonprofit organizations than Orange County.
Educational institutions and the arts, however, historically have been well-supported.
"I don't know if we're not as sexy or we're not doing a good enough job communicating to people why having food, clothing and inoculations for children so once they get to school they can concentrate on schooling is just as important as the arts," Wilcox said.
The local United Way, which compares giving in terms of per person employed in a particular county, receives donations that are almost half the national average.
The national average is $16 per person and in Orange County it is about $7, Wilcox said.
"In Seattle, which has roughly as many people as Orange County does, they have about 65% participation and ours is about 35%. They're working on a $45-million campaign and we're struggling to reach $21 million."
The 1998 Orange County Annual Survey by UC Irvine found that the overall median rate of charitable giving in Orange County had dropped from $226 per household in 1997 to $203 last year. The current rate is lower than the average of $221 for the past 11 years.