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October 22, 2013

Why We Give [Y-not]

Last weekend I attended a charity gala hosted by our local university. Held every year, the gala is a chance for the university to celebrate donors to scholarship funds and to highlight the achievements of the students those gifts supported. Despite the unpleasantness I endured by my semi-annual donning of pantyhose, I left the event feeling less glum about the world around me and more tolerant of my fellow Americans. It got me thinking about the culture of philanthropy in the United States and why we give.

It’s no secret that Americans are very generous. The culture of philanthropy in this country is very strong, so much so that people travel from all over the world to learn how to adapt it to their own cultures. In a recent assessment of global giving by Charities Aid Foundation the U.S. was ranked 5th. (Personally, I think this is an underestimate owing to the inclusion of “soft numbers” like volunteer time and helping strangers, but let’s not quibble.) According to the National Philanthropic Trust’s most recent report, some 88% of U.S. households give to charity, averaging $2,213 per household each year. In 2010, the total charitable giving in the U.S. was roughly 2% of the GDP. The lion’s share of these gifts came from individuals or their estates (over 80%) with gifts from private foundations (14%) and corporations (5%) trailing significantly behind.

Some communities in the U.S. are more philanthropic than others. (Note: I am not equating being more philanthropic with being more "caring" or "generous" or any of those things. I'm just talking about charitable giving.) Utah ranks high in charitable giving owing in large measure to the tithing of the LDS Church, but when those contributions are removed giving to non-church organizations drops precipitously. This creates a challenging environment for secular charities in my adopted state, not too dissimilar to the first scene in this episode of Blackadder:

Blackadder Season 01 Episode 03 - The Archbishop by 3_14us

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has a widget you can use to see how giving varies across the country. And, yes, “red states” are over-represented in the top 10 most charitable states, although precisely why this is remains a matter of debate. (I may do a post about this at a later date once I’ve had a chance too dig into the data.)

Who benefitted from this generosity? Well, according to NPT by far the largest sector was to religious organizations, comprising 32% of dollars donated in 2011. Education (13%) and human services (12%) were the next two greatest beneficiaries. Those numbers are not surprising, but what is a bit of a surprise is how those charitable groups are faring during the SCOAMF’s economic Obamacalypse:

Since the Great Recession, giving to religion has been one of the subsectors of philanthropy that has struggled most to regain its footing. While giving to religion continues to receive the largest share of charitable donations in America (see chart below from Giving USA, the annual report on philanthropy in America), it is the only subsector that saw no growth in 2012, declining as a percentage of total giving, from 33 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2012.

Again, I have not dug deeply into these numbers therefore the reasons religious organizations are lagging others are not clear (to me, at least). It may be a reflection of an increasingly secular society or it could be that the government is assuming roles previously filled by churches or perhaps it’s owing to something else altogether. (One possibility may be that by and large churches do not employ professional fundraisers, relying instead on their weekly contact with church members to engage them for gifts. So there may be a purely technical disadvantage that churches face compared to professionally-run charities.)

So why do we give? The word philanthropy means “love of humanity” and certainly much of the charitable giving in this country has it roots in a desire to support and nurture our fellow human beings. During the years of my involvement in charitable fundraising I’ve had the chance to meet some truly amazing people whose compassion for – and generosity to – their fellow man is inspiring. Often these people give anonymously or even wait to make their gift through bequests rather seeking accolades for their generosity. These are the quiet heroes of our society.

Some of the donors I’ve worked with were motivated by what may seem like less lofty concerns or are attracted to make changes in arenas that we society might not think are important. I have learned not to judge. Cowboy Poetry may not be my cup of tea, but if someone wants to donate their wealth (not my tax dollars) to support that, more power to them. In my opinion, the act of giving is a virtue onto itself, enriching both the giver and the recipient. It is the expression of the American spirit that each of us has the freedom to choose where to freely give of our riches. This sets us apart from many parts of the world where the government fills the roles we give to our churches and private charities.

My own philanthropy tends to run towards Higher Education (I denounce myself) and is often more student-centered rather than oriented toward academic or scholarly programs. I think this may be because of my fundamentally hopeful outlook on life. I want to help young Americans shape their futures (and, by extension, ours) during a critical time in their lives. As I was enjoying last weekend’s event, I got thinking about my own personal history of giving and suspect it parallels what many of us growing up in the U.S. experienced.

My earliest recollections of giving happened every Sunday at Mass. My dad often gave me the pre-printed envelope filled with whatever their weekly contribution to the parish was so I could put it the collection basket. We were not a Unicef family, so we did not participate in the trick or treat penny campaign (To me it will always be “Trick or treat for abortion.” Pass.), but I suspect for many American kids that or the band fundraisers or scouting served as early exposures to philanthropy.

Aside from the occasional charity raffle ticket or Girl Scout cookie or buck given to a hobo (yes, I did this when I was young and foolish), my first act of what I’d consider purposeful philanthropy was to my alma mater. My college was establishing a scholarship in honor of one of my former professors who had recently passed away. Thus, my first real philanthropic gift was to an institution I knew well for a very personal reason (to honor a favorite professor). I wonder if that is true for many of us. (Incidentally, I think this may be one reason I am alarmed about the hostility many seem to feel towards their alma maters in specific and higher education in general. To me it is probably one of the bigger influences many of us have in our philanthropic outlook second only to what we learn from our families and experience at our places of worship.)

Over the years most of my gifts were smaller one-time gifts to organizations or activities that caught my eye, from nature organizations like the Peregrine Fund to cultural festivals like Idaho’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival. As I’ve gotten older (get off my lawn!), I’ve entered a new philanthropic phase involving more planning of my gifts so that their size and impact can be a bit larger. Currently my husband and I are paying off a multi-year pledge for an on-site daycare center designed specifically to assist students (most of whom are young women) of great need who would not be able to find a safe educational environment for their children while they attend classes. It’s kind of a funny thing to support for two people who have an aversion to rug rats, but, hey, at least it’s not Cowboy Poetry!

So where do YOU give and what got you started on your own philanthropic road? For those of you who grew up (or are living) abroad, what have you observed about the culture of philanthropy in the U.S. versus that in other countries?

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posted by Open Blogger at 11:22 AM

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