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Greg Weingast has $25,000 in his pocket when he walks into the Capital Area Food Bank in DC’s Brookland neighborhood. Not literally, but that’s what hangs in the balance.
Weingast has worked in commercial real estate since graduating from American University in 1984. He’s now an executive VP of Archstone, one of Washington’s biggest real-estate companies.
The past decade rewarded real-estate executives handsomely, including Weingast, 46. “I am blessed,” he says, “and I want to give back.”
To Weingast, giving doesn’t mean society balls. It’s kicking the tires of charities, poring over their financial statements, taking the measure of their leaders. Before he cuts a check to the food bank, he wants to know what the money will pay for. With each donation, he wants to know the return on his dollar in terms of social good.
“I feel like a mini-version of Bill Gates,” he says.
Weingast is one of a new breed of philanthropists who see themselves not as donors but as investors in social change.
“This is not your father’s philanthropy,” says Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors in DC. “They want to attack root causes of problems. They aren’t happy to feed a few hundred people. They want their money to go toward ending hunger.”
Weingast and others like him have helped fuel a golden age for philanthropy. In the past decade, as Washington’s wealth has soared, so has its giving.
According to an analysis of IRS data done for The Washingtonian by the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, individuals in this area gave away $5.3 billion in 2005, the latest year data are available. After adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of more than half over 1997. Foundation and nonprofit leaders say more of this giving is targeted to area causes than ever before.
With the credit crisis and a downshifting economy, the next few years look to be leaner. Giving almost certainly will fall just as the numbers in need of housing, food, job training, and other services grow.
But Washington philanthropic resources are stronger than before the recession of the early 1990s, a downturn similar to today’s. At that time, individual giving trailed national averages. Few major corporations headquartered here made a big impact philanthropically, and most foundations were small.
Today, area residents give 3.3 percent of their income to charity. That ranks fourth—behind Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston and tied with Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Riverside, California—in an analysis of giving in America’s 16 biggest metro areas by the Urban Institute.
In the past 15 years, the number of foundations has almost doubled to more than 1,600, many of them established by area families. Firms such as Booz Allen, Capital One, and Lockheed Martin have become big players in area philanthropy.
Julie Rogers, head of the Meyer Foundation, says national grantmakers began to show interest in Washington about ten years ago, when DC hosted the annual conference of foundations. Kay Graham threw a party and invited Colin Powell and other powerful national figures. “We tried to make an impression that Washington is a living, breathing, city—not just a stopover,” Rogers says.
Washington philanthropy still lacks a New York– or Chicago-size roster of the superrich. But the dearth of billionaires is offset by a large concentration of millionaires. An analysis by the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy shows that 10 percent of area households have a net worth of more than $1 million—in contrast to 7 percent nationwide.
Many of Washington’s mini-moguls are younger than is typical. According to the center’s study, people ages 40 to 59 hold 57 percent of the area’s wealth. If these mini-moguls were to follow tradition, they’d give away their money late in life or when they die. But philanthropy insiders suggest that Washington’s young affluent are, like Greg Weingast, giving away some of their money now.
Many are lawyers, venture capitalists, tech-company execs, and real-estate developers who want to give back to an area that’s made them rich. They reached adulthood at a time when the culture preached the need for service through the creation of AmeriCorps and the like. Inspired by Bill Gates, a contemporary, they’re making philanthropy a part of family life.
“We’re really busting the myth that people become philanthropists later in life—when they retire or when they finish paying for Harvard, Princeton, Yale,” says Sally Rudney, executive director of the Montgomery County Community Foundation. “It’s happening now.”
Greg Weingast began his philanthropy in earnest a few years ago. He was writing checks to AU, arts groups, and others when his financial adviser suggested he could be more efficient in his giving by working with the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.
Chartered in 1973, the foundation was troubled until the early 1990s, when Robert Linowes—a renowned lawyer and civic activist—became chair and helped it focus on the area’s most severe needs.
Since then, the organization has become the biggest workhorse in Washington philanthropy. Its assets have grown from $52 million in 1996 to more than $350 million, making it one of the nation’s largest community foundations. In 2007, it gave away $96 million—$60 million locally, more than twice the local giving of runner-up Fannie Mae.