The current state of philanthropy in America.
January 1, 1998
in this forum:
Are Americans now more concerned with humanitarian and social philanthropy than ever before? Does America's generosity derive from some national benevolence or is it representative of a failure by our government to provide a social safety net for the underprivileged? With respect to Mr. Soros' and Mr. Turner's philanthropic undertakings, do you believe that there is a danger with such large scale donations? With all the attention given to Soros and Turner, it seems to me that the "little man", the average American, has been grossly overlooked. Has not the average American also been giving more? What do you believe can explain the recent upturn in philanthropic donations? New wealth? New spirituality? Ernest McBride of St. Louis, MO, asks:
Are Americans now more concerned with humanitarian and social philanthropy than ever before?
The Independent Sector responds:It is difficult to actually measure whether Americans are more concerned about humanitarianism and philanthropy than ever before. History has shown us that Americans have always responded with generosity to human needs--whether it was through neighbor helping neighbor or groups organizing formally to meet public needs. However, it does seem that the year 1997 has brought increased media attention to philanthropy and possibly an increase in social concern.
For example, the Presidents' Summit on America's Future last spring brought presidential and celebrity attention to the importance of volunteering. The deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa focused the public's attention on the significant charitable activities of these two very different yet generous public figures. And Ted Turner's announcement of his large gift brought renewed attention to the philanthropic activities of the very wealthy. For the first time several magazines are publishing lists of the top philanthropists along with lists of the wealthiest individuals. In addition, over the past two decades the number of nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS has nearly doubled as many individuals are organizing formally to serve their communities.
This increased media attention and increase in size of the nonprofit sector may indeed indicate that more Americans are concerned with making the world a better place. However, a constant finding in our research over the past ten years shows that a vast majority of Americans (over 80%) will respond favorably when personally asked to give and volunteer.
Kathleen D. McCarthy, Director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy, responds:
Americans have been concerned with the alleviation of poverty and want since the nation's inception. Unfortunately, the available statistics do not allow us to concretely track levels of giving and voluntarism beyond the last 30 years or so. However, the historical evidence reveals that church related giving and voluntarism to aid the sick, the aged, disadvantaged children and the poor became widespread beginning in the 1820s. During the period after the Civil War, a number of local, secular coalitions of organizations to aid the dependent and poor also appeared with increasing regularity, and by the 1920s, local and national nonprofit federations like United Charities and United Ways could be found in cities and towns across the nation. While voluntarism has been a constant part of American life for almost two centuries. giving has risen dramatically in the past thirty years. Gauged in constant dollars that have been adjusted for inflation, giving by Americans rose from an estimated $66 billion in 1966 to $120 billion in 1996. Approximately $12 billion of that is allocated for human services, a figure well below the sums donated for religious purposes [almost $70 billion], as well as education [$18 billion] and health [@$14 billion]. Several factors may account for the upsurge in giving, ranging from responses to government cutbacks to social welfare services, to the attractiveness of tax incentives in periods of economic prosperity. The effect of consciousness raising efforts like the Independent Sector's "Give Five" campaign, which encouraged Americans to give and volunteer more generously, have also helped to spur rising levels of generosity.