Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that’s also made us insufferable.
It still flows through Boston, this sense of righteousness and moral superiority. You see it everywhere, but especially in the nonprofits—in the hospitals, schools, and public charities that dominate this town. They’re all dedicated to the idea of helping others before helping themselves. And they wield a lot of power. In the past few decades, the number of public charities in particular has spiked, more than doubling across the state from 1989 to 2007, according to a 2008 report by the Boston Foundation, itself a powerful charity. The nonprofit sector’s influence has only increased since then. From 2005 to 2010, nonprofit employment in the state grew by 22 percent, or almost 75,000 positions, according to a 2012 Boston Foundation report. By contrast, civilian employment fell 1.9 percent nationally and 3.4 percent in Massachusetts. Johns Hopkins University recently found that nonprofits make up 16.7 percent of the Massachusetts workforce, versus 10.1 percent nationally. And Boston-area nonprofits hold an almost unfathomable amount of money: $203 billion in total assets in 2010, according to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics. No other metro area of comparable size comes anywhere close to that. (Detroit’s nonprofits are second on the NCCS’s list, with $133 billion in total assets.) The 40 largest nonprofits in Boston own property that is equivalent to more than half the city’s commercial tax base, according to city estimates.
But it seems that the do-gooderism at the office ends when everybody punches out for the day. A study released this summer by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that Boston is the second-stingiest major metropolitan area in the country, with its residents giving only 2.8 percent of their discretionary income to charity. That’s a depressing number. Statewide, only 24 percent of us find the time to volunteer, a figure slightly lower than the national average. The Chronicle posits that the differentiation stems largely from our region’s relative lack of religion, and especially its weekly reminder to keep all of our values aligned.
A city that runs on the premise of doing good for others before doing well for yourself will almost inevitably foster a culture of priggishness. Lots of high-profile Bostonians are genuinely doing good, there’s no doubt. But plenty of them seem to think this gives them license to behave very badly. Paul Levy, the former president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, made a big to-do about saving the jobs of low-level hospital employees by cutting back on higher-ranking salaries, all the while securing a high-paying job for a young woman he called a “close personal friend.” John Henry’s wife, Linda Pizzuti, who proudly touts herself as a green real estate developer, oversaw the tear-down of a preexisting 13,000-square-foot mansion on her Brookline property in order to erect a 35,000-square-foot palace with a home theater and its own grotto. Sal DiMasi unwaveringly declared gambling to be a moral evil while he was at the State House, but he doesn’t seem to have felt the same way about the kickbacks he received from lobbyists.