Steve Liss,  "" exhibit

© Steve Liss/

How generously people give to charities is influenced by where they live and how often they see people in need, a new study finds. And that has implications for photographers, and for non-profits who need compelling storytelling to help them raise money.

People earning between $50,000 and $99,999 a year give a higher percentage of their discretionary income to charities than people making over $200,000 do, a new study from the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports. The study notes that while rich people give more to charities in dollar amounts, they give a lower percentage of their disposable income than people who earn less.

That’s due to isolation, the study finds. People who live in wealthy enclaves (zip codes where more than 40 percent of households earn $200,000 a year or more) rarely encounter people who benefit from charitable programs; they also give a smaller portion of their income to charity. The study, which includes an interactive map showing how charitable giving breaks down by state and zip code, also shows that the rate of giving goes up among wealthy people who live in more economically diverse communities. (Because it based its report on tax returns that list tax-deductible donations, the study doesn’t distinguish between donations made to religious organizations, educational institutions, social programs or other non-profits.)  People who see neighbors relying on the local food pantry to make it through the month give more generously than those who never see the impact charitable organizations can have.

“Simply seeing someone in need at the grocery store—or looking down the street at a neighbor’s modest house—can serve as basic psychological reminders of the needs of other people,” says Paul Piff, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Piff says the differences in attitude toward charitable giving dissolve when people are simply made aware of poverty. For example, he showed participants in his study a video about childhood poverty.

That means that charities have to do a better job of showing and telling the stories of their clients. Photographers seeking work from NGOs and foundations can use their ability to tell stories of communities–through stills, audio interviews or video—as a sales pitch. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s study can also provide useful insights when photographers are negotiating fees for this kind of work:  In-depth stories from and about the community a charity serves can help the organization’s fund raising, potentially inspiring bigger donations from the people who have the greatest resources to share.

As Piff says, “Absent that, wealth will have these egregious effects insulating you more and more.”

The fact is, it’s up to charities themselves to share these stories. Because the media rarely covers poverty.

In an article in the October issue of PDN, photographer Steve Liss explains that he and Jon Lowenstein started, a non-profit alliance of photojournalists determined “to use visual media raise awareness about poverty in the United States” after their stories about unemployment, homelessness, immigration, criminal justice and other issues affecting the poor were rejected by magazines. As Steve Liss succinctly tells PDN, “Poverty is poison.” has sought to fill that void by bringing its traveling exhibition to a variety of venues. These now include high schools: Thanks to a grant the organization received earlier this year, they are running workshops for student leaders and enlisting young people in discussions around poverty.

“We can make a difference,” says Liss. “I believe in my soul in the power of photography but we haven’t been showing it to the right people in the right venues.”

(For more on this study, see National Public Radio: Study Reveals the Geography of Charitable Giving)

     * Photo, above: Students at a high school in Rockville, Maryland view photos by Steve Liss and Eli Reed in an exhibit that student leaders mounted during a weeklong Student Leadership Program. © Steve Liss/





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