Disruptive Demography in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago…

…Cleveland, Denver, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix.

Anyone involved in raising money nationally or in any of these cities – or cities like any of them – should read and add to one’s library Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City¹.

In his prologue, Ehrenhalt writes, “The truth is we are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. And we need to adjust our perceptions of cities, suburbs, and urban mobility as a result.”

With Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam helped us understand the connection between a community’s social capital and its philanthropic capacity. Alan Ehrenhalt gives us an entirely different perspective on why metropolitan areas present themselves so differently as markets for fundraising, and how they are changing.

With so many challenges close at hand, you need not be concerned (although you might be) with the future of the American City to find immediate value in The Great Inversion.

For one thing, there’s great value in knowing the demographic phenomena affecting the trends Ehrenhalt writes about. He posits that the great inversion is being prompted, for example, by a 50% increase that will occur over the coming two decades in the proportion of the population over 65 (good news for nonprofits); that while homeownership exceeded 69% in 2004 it is heading southward (not so good news); and that we are headed rapidly toward having more single-member households than households with children (news of mixed value).

While giving tends to develop during years in which people have maximum discretionary income, it tends to mature in the years that follow retirement (generally, after 65).

Homeownership has tended to correlate with community social capital stake-holding. While giving up homeownership might not make a difference among donors already committed to a community’s nonprofit organizations, the decline seems most likely to be affected by people choosing never to buy homes nor to become vested in the quality of a community’s life.

Similarly, children tend to anchor families to communities and incline parents toward communities of better social capital, while households with adult couples have consistently proved better donor households than those with single adults.

Ehrenhalt describes the precedence set by trends well underway in Chicago and New York; what’s gone right in near-suburban Washington and wrong in near-suburban Cleveland; what’s being attempted and succeeding in Denver and Charlotte, the false starts that have occurred in Houston and Phoenix, and why Philadelphia presents an “uneasy coexistence.”

While The Great Inversion helps fundraisers — indeed, nonprofit managers — set their plans and aspirations in the cities explored in the book and cities like them, it also offers valuable caution to national organizations bent on scaling their fundraising investments by treating everyone in every place everywhere the same. As much as the template designs of nationwide retail emporia have made some parts of every metropolitan area look exactly alike, there still are distinctions that attract people to settle in, join, and contribute to one city over another.  There’s the interstate highway, commercial visage of metropolitan America, which gives us all the impression of going nowhere very fast, and then there is the human visage. And there’s no doubt which one we should have.


¹2012, Borzoi Books (Alfred A. Knopf), New York