Soft touches

Charities are advised to stay close to Boston–or head a bit to the west–when shaking their tin cans. The Catalogue for Philanthropy, a consortium of nonprofits that says it “promotes philanthropy itself,” recently released its latest Massachusetts Generosity Index, which ranks 333 Bay State cities and towns by their level of giving. The name is slightly misleading. The Index does not necessarily indicate how generous citizens are in each town; rather, it suggests which localities would be the best prospects for fund drives. Rankings are based on three criteria from 1997 federal income tax returns (the last year available): the percentage of taxpayers in each town who itemize charitable deductions (which eliminates lower-income taxpayers who use the “EZ” forms from the survey); the amount of those donations as a percentage of donors’ annual incomes.

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Not surprisingly, the generosity rankings track fairly closely with median incomes, but the percentage of college graduates turns out to be the best indicator of where a city or town ends up on the Generosity Index. The western suburbs of Lincoln, Concord, and Wayland occupy the top three spots on the Index; they rank 10th, 16th, and 13th in the state in terms of the percentage of college graduates. The most highly educated community, Carlisle, ranks 30th on Generosity Index.

There are a few surprises. Tyngsborough ranks seventh on the Generosity Index but 180th in terms of college graduates. Chelsea, which is third from the bottom on the college-graduate scale, is a relatively high 188th on the Generosity Index; other cities, including New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester, were also near the middle despite educational disadvantages. As for the stingier towns, Westford ranks 138th in donations despite being 12th in wealth and 40th in higher education, and Boxborough comes in 175th despite ranking 28th in wealth and seventh in college degrees.