As We See It

[Vegas on my Mind]

Las Vegas is a far more generous community than it gets credit for

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A Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis found that Nevada has seen the fastest rate of growth of charitable donations.

A few months ago, I was driving around my new hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, putting up with the irksome programming interruptions that come with being a devotee of National Public Radio. Through the increasingly desperate pleas, I kept waiting to hear the tiers of giving as I weighed how much I’d kick in.

I didn’t find anything on the Michigan Public Radio site either. From what I could tell, the only tangible benefit of giving $50 instead of $5 was a warm feeling. So I called to ask what I’d get for my donation. The perplexed volunteer replied, “Well, you get NPR.”

The reason I was even in this odd moment was because of the often unnoticed generosity of the Las Vegas community. After many years of hearing Flo Rogers’ mellifluous British voice on KNPR asking for money and regaling the many corporate supporters who provide such marvelous incentives to do so, I assumed this is how public radio works everywhere.

Not so. All those restaurant gift certificates, passes to museums and other attractions, tote bags and T-shirts and whatever else is on offer from KNPR depending on your level of generosity are, in fact, exceptional. What’s more, it all represents a vast community ethos in Las Vegas that does not receive enough respect. Everyone shrugs that the money-minting Vegas conglomerates are giving away cool stuff for the free publicity and the tax break, and those may be real motives. But I now live in a region that also boasts countless wonderful restaurants, theaters, casinos, sporting venues and weekend getaways. None of them uses its wares to encourage charitable giving by the general public.

The KNPR example was on my mind when I received a press release touting an Aria event that would unveil to a 4-year-old local girl with kidney cancer that Make-A-Wish Southern Nevada was sending her to Disneyland. They were putting on a Cinderella ball for young Maya Cortes that included a limo ride to the hotel, a “mocktail” hour featuring lemonade and her favorite foods, an elaborate presentation of a glass slipper and a dance.

Ordinarily, I regard press releases of this sort as self-serving. But I had just gone through the training to be a Make-A-Wish volunteer in my area, and my first Wish Kid had recently learned he and his family were heading to Disneyland. They found out from a phone call. We volunteers are tasked with pulling together some sort of send-off for him but are strictly forbidden from either asking for donations from local companies or spending more than about $250. The fear is that if some volunteers go overboard for their kids, other Wish Kids might feel deprived.

I get that, but again I wondered: Where are the big companies, the universities, the entertainment and hospitality industries around here to work with charities like this when it makes sense? The Make-A-Wish folks in Southern Nevada clearly believe Aria’s generosity won’t be a letdown of sorts for some other child. Instead, they’re reasonably confident that corporate givers will answer when they call.

This would all be anecdotal but for the fact that empirical data emerged in December to back up the idea that Las Vegas may be a far more generous city than we thought. A Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis of IRS data found that Nevada has seen the fastest rate of growth of donations as a share of income between 2006 and 2012. Vegas topped the 50 largest urban areas in the same statistic.

That is astounding. As the bottom fell out of Las Vegas’ economy in a way few other parts of the nation can really appreciate, Vegas gave more. A few years ago in this magazine I theorized that the brutality of the Great Recession could help the Vegas population, always so fluid and amorphous, coalesce into a stronger community. When the hard times subsided, I suggested, there would be a bonded sense that we all survived something horrific by suffering together. This data shows that might actually be happening.

I’m aware there’s an honor to being charitable that’s separate from what donors receive in return. I gave to Michigan Public Radio even though they didn’t offer free Michigan football tickets or two-for-one coupons at Steak ’n Shake. I’m not dropping out of Make-A-Wish, either.

But I’m also filled with a certain pride in being able to see, from this distance, the good in the soul of Las Vegas. I didn’t realize how much was there until I left.

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