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A Platform for Ambition (City Journal)

October 05, 2016

CITY JOURNAL (print and online)

A Platform for Ambition: Dallas has become a hub of charitable and philanthropic giving

Texas Rising 2016 | Howard Husock

When most Americans think of Dallas, oil, football, Texas Instruments, and other symbols of robust, unapologetic free enterprise come to mind. What fewer people realize is that the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area, now the nation’s fourth-largest, has become a hub of philanthropic giving—especially for “social entrepreneurs” finding new ways to help the needy. With its dynamic, growing economy and an unprecedented population surge—some 1.7 million have moved here since 2000—the area, says the founder of an organization designed to improve health care for the homeless, provides “a platform for ambition.”

It’s a platform with at least three key characteristics, all representative of Dallas. The first is a capacity for expansive visions and large commitments. Brent Christopher, who heads the Communities Foundation of Texas, which manages more than $1 billion in philanthropic funds, says that Dallas philanthropists like “making really big bets on original ideas.” Second, such giving is reinforced by the sort of individual charity that has helped build major new faith-based initiatives—from fledgling urban ministries to huge new institutions such as Prestonwood Baptist, a megachurch that boasts more than 40,000 members and an annual budget estimated at $70 million. Third, these efforts rely on legions of volunteers, many also faith-inspired. Thus, while the Dallas economy gallops along and remains identified with thriving businesses and sometimes gaudy displays of wealth, Dallas civil society could be described, without irony, as a combination of faith, hope, and charity.

If Dallas isn’t widely known yet for its philanthropic spirit, neither is Texas commonly associated with social-mindedness—yet the Lone Star State, which averages more than $7,500 in itemized charitable deductions per tax return, ranks sixth in the nation for charitable giving, higher than any other large state, according to IRS data compiled by the Urban Institute. Texas tax returns show charitable giving totaling more than $16 billion. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranks Dallas the eighth-most generous city in the country. Houston and San Antonio rank highly as well, at 11th and 14th, respectively. (New York City, by contrast, ranks 38th.)

Official data almost certainly understate the extent of such giving in Texas because the Urban Institute’s ranking “does not account for charitable giving by non-itemizers.” Only 19 percent of taxpayers in Texas itemize their returns, compared with 30 percent of taxpayers in New York. (The nationwide average is 33 percent.) Texans have less incentive to itemize. In a state where home prices are low, mortgage interest—one of the top reasons to itemize taxes—is also low. And Texas has no state income tax, another common deduction in other states. “No one knows how much non-itemizers donate,” the Urban Institute concedes. One conservative estimate, published in Giving USA 2016: The Annual Report on Philanthropy in America for the Year 2015, concludes that non-itemized contributions may add up to as much as 20 percent of the tracked total from itemizers—meaning that non-itemizing Texans provide an additional $3.2 billion in donations. Joe Perry, a minister of Prestonwood Baptist Church, agrees that tax returns probably don’t capture everything. In many cases, he says, his members make substantial gifts in cash, and while some are vigilant about asking for a receipt, just as many decline his offer of one.

Religiosity no doubt explains some of why Texans are so generous. The Pew Research Center ranks Texas as the 11th-most religious state in the nation. Sixty-three percent of Texans say that religion is “very important in their lives.” According to Business Insider, Dallas ranks seventh among all cities in the number of religious institutions—one for every 909 residents. On average, 22 percent of all Americans are religiously “unaffiliated”; in Dallas, that number is just 18 percent. (In Seattle, by contrast, it’s 33 percent.)

Relatively high levels of discretionary income also help account for Texans’ largesse. Texans pay a low share of their income in taxes, leaving them with more after-tax income to give away than residents of other states. The Tax Foundation has found that high-income earners in Texas pay the lowest top marginal income-tax rates in the country; Californians pay the highest. And it’s not just rich Texans who get a break. The Tax Foundation has also found that combined Texas state and local taxes as a share of income total just 7.6 percent, ranking Texas 41st nationally. New York, which ranks first, collects 12.7 percent of its residents’ incomes.

These advantages have helped fuel the engine of Texas philanthropy and its distinctive traits—big bets, widespread individual giving, and faith-inspired involvement. The formula can best be understood by looking closely at some distinctive examples. Three institutions, ranging widely in size and local prominence, illustrate how Dallas’s “platform for ambition” works.

It was far from inevitable that Ruben Amarasingham would build a medical career in Dallas and go on to develop software to improve the health care of emergency-room patients at Parkland, the city’s public hospital. Dallas philanthropy played a crucial role in bringing him here. A Brown University graduate raised in Delaware by Sri Lankan immigrant parents, Amarasingham was drawn to medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center by the financial support that the growing and ambitious school—founded in 1972—offered him. His scholarship was made possible in part by a 1991 bequest to the school by Dallas philanthropist Nancy Hamon, whose $25 million gift was, at the time, among the largest ever given to a public medical school and the first of a series of multimillion-dollar gifts made by the Hamon Foundation. The foundation’s funds derived from the oil fortune of Nancy’s husband, Jake, who had worked as an oil field “roustabout” in Ranger, Texas, in the 1920s.

Amarasingham’s nonprofit technology start-up, the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation (PCCI), would never have launched without the support of big-ticket Dallas philanthropy. The W. W. Caruth Foundation—endowed by a $300 million post–World War II real-estate fortune left to the Communities Foundation of Texas—was founded by a man committed to enterprising philanthropy. “He didn’t want us to provide annual $100,000 operating grants to established social service organizations,” says Communities Foundation president Brent Christopher. “He was a Texas entrepreneur. He wanted us to write big checks for important new ideas—in Dallas.” In 2014, the Caruth Foundation bet big on Amarasingham, pumping $12 million into his software program, which links the Parkland Health and Hospital system, operator of one of the nation’s largest public hospitals for the poor, with dozens of programs for the homeless, hungry, and substance abusers. Administrators of these programs were often unaware that they served the same clientele as the hospital’s emergency rooms.

Amarasingham recalls doing duty as an emergency-medicine internist and calling a patient to see if he was taking his prescription thyroid medication. It turned out he was calling a Salvation Army mission. “They were stunned,” he recalls. “They said they’d never had a doctor call before.” The incident reinforced an idea that he’d long held: “big data” analytics could help predict which patients would most likely return, time and again, for the same kinds of medical crises. Amarasingham’s goal is to break the cycle of hospital readmissions among the poor. The method: aggregating and analyzing records from a variety of institutions—homeless shelters, food pantries, veterans’ centers—to identify patients whose physical and behavioral problems deserve special attention. A small trial program succeeded in lowering the rate of return visits by such patients by 27 percent at Parkland, which sees 1.2 million patient visits annually.

Though Amarasingham had accepted a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellowship for graduate education, taking him to Baltimore for an MBA at Johns Hopkins University, he returned to Dallas in part because of the city’s “dynamism” and openness. “I could have stayed on the East Coast, and I might have had a chance to do the things I’ve done here only after years and years,” he says. “Here, I can work in a public hospital serving the minority poor—and use it as a chance to change the health-care system.”

In addition to local foundation support, Amarasingham has succeeded in attracting funds from national grant-makers intrigued by his work with the needy. “The regional aspect has helped,” he says, both because local philanthropy “likes my story” and because national foundations are surprised to find a combination of tech innovation and concern for the poor in conservative Texas. Under Medicaid pressure to reduce readmissions, hospitals around the country may soon be using Amarasingham’s software—a prospect much enhanced by PCCI’s for-profit arm, installed on the 11th floor of a typically nondescript Dallas office building. Its revenues will continue to support PCCI’s nonprofit research.

“If I had stayed at Hopkins,” Amarasingham says, “I don’t think it all would have happened.”

Dallas philanthropies aren’t just focused on shiny new tech start-ups like PCCI; they have also proved their willingness to invest in less glamorous projects. In a strip-mall office on the outskirts of downtown Dallas, where the July police shootings took place, a group of evangelical Christians who work with the city’s police gather each morning for Bible study. They act on two beliefs: in Christ as savior and that black lives matter. They are not protesting, however.

Reid Porter and the 20-strong staff of his organization, Advocates for Community Transformation, spend their days knocking on doors in the parts of Dallas that aren’t booming. Vacant lots and old frame houses pockmark the largely black and Latino neighborhoods of West Dallas. A Tom Cruise lookalike with a law degree, Porter has done as much as anyone in the city to help reduce crime. ACT recruits homeowners to file suits against absentee landlords whose properties provide havens for the drug and sex trades. The possibility of legal liability and substantial fines—in a neighborhood where the homes may be worth as little as $20,000—has forced eviction of tenants, demolition, or sale of more than 70 such houses over the past four years. Only three cases have gone all the way to court; all three were decided in ACT’s favor.

While both Amarasingham and Porter have received Dallas foundation funding (including, in Porter’s case, $3 million from the Caruth Foundation), Porter’s work is “faith-inspired”—the ACT staff gathers daily for mid-morning prayer meetings—and relies significantly on individual donors. ACT’s legal strategy draws on top Dallas law-firm volunteers, many from Porter’s socially conservative church, Park Cities Presbyterian, a 5,500-strong congregation established independently of the politically liberal Presbyterian Church USA in 1991. Volunteer attorneys from 13 law firms and the Southern Methodist University School of Law provide an estimated $2.4 million in pro bono assistance. As ACT puts it: “Our work gives attorneys an opportunity to carry out Christ’s call to pursue justice on behalf of the oppressed.”

ACT’s religious dimension attracts nonlegal volunteers, too. In 2015, more than 600 people took part in prayer walks, service projects, and beautification schemes. Members of Park Cities Presbyterian and other churches help ACT clean the alleys of West Dallas. While taking on what some might describe as a mission of social justice, Porter’s inspiration clearly is rooted in evangelical Christianity. “I felt led,” he says, “to put my law degree to use in West Dallas.”

Porter’s efforts combine technological sophistication, innovative legal tactics, and an alliance with city government. The Dallas Police Department regularly provides ACT with up-to-date crime data for its targeted neighborhoods; the city’s legal office refers matters to Porter because it lacks the capacity to take up the volume of cases. Because ACT must gain the cooperation of fearful homeowners, Porter has steeped himself in left-wing community-organizing literature. Yes, he says, he’s even read Saul Alinsky.

The results, closely tracked, have proved impressive. In the four West Dallas neighborhoods where ACT has been active, major crime—including murder, assault, burglary, and rape—has fallen 52 percent, from 1,701 in 2008 to 1,124 in 2015. That’s still too much crime, of course, and the 2015 figure includes four murders and 147 home break-ins. But in the Westmoreland Park/Ledbetter Gardens neighborhood where ACT first launched its efforts, no murders occurred in 2015, and crime, since 2008, has dropped by 70 percent. (ACT began operating in 2009.) Reverend Billy White, Sr., who leads the tiny, whitewashed Saint Mark Vineyard AME Zion church—and has himself faced down gang threats—was initially skeptical that a program led by white outsiders could make a difference in this majority black neighborhood. Now, “kids are riding bikes in the street again,” he says.

This fall, Porter and ACT will extend their approach to troubled South Dallas, which suffered nearly 1,600 major crimes, including nine murders, last year. For Porter, though, crime reduction, if it occurs, will only be part of the story. As ACT’s fund-raising literature puts it: “You will not be disappointed in the social and Kingdom returns on your investment with ACT.”

Like Reid Porter, Joe Perry oversees faith-inspired ministries—in his case,

more than a dozen, not just in Dallas but around the country and the world. As Prestonwood Baptist Church’s “minister of missions and evangelism,” however, Perry has no need for foundation grants; the Plano-based megachurch’s huge budget makes all his work possible. One of the largest religious congregations in North America, with 40,000 members, Prestonwood Baptist boasts a 7,500-seat sanctuary (with the skyline of Dallas visible behind the pulpit), its own Christian Academy with 1,500 students, and football fields (constructed by a local contractor as an in-kind contribution). Founded in 1979 to serve the growing North Dallas community, Prestonwood began its outreach as a “bus ministry,” bringing people to the then-fledgling church.

The wide range of ministries that Perry and his staff oversee is made possible by charitable contributions often not captured by tax data. It’s not uncommon, says Perry, for members with modest incomes to tithe. Schoolteachers, insurance salesmen, and small-business owners contribute 10 percent of their income to the church, even on earnings of just $50,000. He points out some of them by name as they eat lunch in the sprawling church cafeteria. The money they contribute supports programs as varied as prisoner visitation, English classes for North Dallas immigrants, hunting trips for African-American boys being raised by single mothers, and Perry’s visits to South Sudan, where he trains ministers who will go on to preach in the dangerous, Muslim-dominated north. The church also got involved in post-Katrina relief in New Orleans, maintaining a presence there for more than a year after the storm.

By contrast with the work of PCCI or ACT, Prestonwood’s ministries don’t set numerical goals. Perry’s mission, first and foremost, is to spread the Gospel; the ministries are just the means. As the church’s literature puts it: “The heartbeat of local missions is no different than what we do nationally or internationally. It is to see lives transformed by the message of the Gospel. Pray about how God could use you right here in North Texas, and come join us in what God is doing through our ministries.” Even the most traditional of Prestonwood’s charity programs promote what can only be called conservative social values. The church’s Christmas store, for example, offers gifts at reduced prices but not for free, lest parents be deprived of the “self-respect” that providing for their children brings.

For Perry, it’s clear that the nation’s Number One problem is fatherlessness. The Prestonwood Sports Organization is not just recreational. It’s aimed at what the church calls “America’s Fatherhood Crisis”—the “physical absence of the father from the home.” The organization’s Providing Adult Leadership (PALS) program links church mentors with sons of female-headed households for five overnight field trips a year, including fishing and hunting excursions. “We teach them the responsible way to handle a gun,” says Perry. The program literature focuses, however, not on the field trips but on “the responsibilities of manhood”—including “honesty and integrity,” respect for women, and “committing themselves to excellence in their studies to develop skills for a future career.” At the same time, the boys are to learn “the principles of influence and servant leadership, as well as effective following.”

Through such programs, Prestonwood is forging social norms. And there’s good reason to believe that marriage, as a norm, is thriving in the Dallas area. The New York Times Upshot data-analysis team found Fort Worth, the other major city in the Dallas “metroplex,” to be one of the few urban areas where marriage is encouraged. In other words, when it comes to marriage, culture matters.

Big-money philanthropy, small-money charity, legions of volunteers, and a healthy dose of religion define the Dallas—and the Texas—model of social entrepreneurship. Measured in dollars, charitable giving in the Lone Star State continues to rise: the average contributions per Texas tax return grew by 22 percent from 2007 to 2012, while those of New York grew by just 1.7 percent. Put another way, the Texas platform for ambition keeps expanding. In Dallas and across the state, tomorrow’s Ruben Amarasinghams, Reid Porters, and Joe Perrys are getting their ideas ready.

Howard Husock is vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, a City Journal contributing editor, and the author of The Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake.

https://www.city-journal.org/html/platform-ambition-14730.html

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