The people of New Haven have a lot to be proud of: a vibrant theater scene, world class museums, enviable architecture, Eli Whitney, Pepe’s Pizza, Yale. The list could go on and on. But what might be missed in a rote recitation of what makes New Haven, well, New Haven, is the community’s long and vital commitment to community. Giving to and participating in not-for-profit organizations seems to be part of the unspoken fabric of New Haven. This spirit of generosity and altruism is pervasive among institutions and individuals alike, and despite the harsh economy, it seems to be growing ever stronger.
“There is a strong philanthropic tradition here,” says Will Ginsberg, president and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. “There is a long history of trying to address challenges, to work together and to focus inwardly to make life better here. It’s in the DNA of New Haven.”
Julie Greenwood, executive director of Squash Haven, which uses squash as a vehicle to encourage academic development, community service and team values, agrees: “I moved here to start Squash Haven, and from the beginning I’ve been struck by the overall culture of civic engagement. It’s a really rich community of people who are committed to making New Haven a better place to live.”
That’s not necessarily true of the rest of the state. In fact, when it comes to charitable giving, Connecticut is ranked 45th in the nation, according to a study released by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a biweekly newspaper that covers the nonprofit world. “New Haven is definitely an anomaly in Connecticut,” says Ginsberg. “Connecticut has long been referred to as the land of steady habits. But we have a unique zeitgeist here relative to the rest of the state.”
The intellectual capital that Yale brings to the table is one reason for all the good mojo. For the nonprofit community—the people raising money and developing ideas—the access to the quality and quantity of brainpower available at Yale is a huge asset. “We are lucky to live in an incredibly liberal community and that lends itself to philanthropy,” says Joanne Goldblum, founder of the New Haven Diaper Bank. “Then you add the access we have to people who think about so many issues at such a high level and you realize that New Haven is pretty amazing.”
And then of course, there is Yale’s financial capital. For many years, relations between town and gown, as the saying goes, were not exactly stellar, as the city’s and the university’s fortunes seemed to be going in opposite directions. But in 1998 Yale declared its commitment to becoming a civic leader when it created its Office of New Haven and State Affairs. Now the university contributes more than $8 million annually to the city of New Haven. “It’s very unusual for an academic institution to be in that role,” says Bruce Alexander, vice president and director of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs. “But it’s very important for the university to have a positive effect on the community and for the community to embrace it.”