December 12, 2017
Having just celebrated the season of thanks we are now well into what America has made into the season of giving. A little published fact about the US is that we are by some distance the most generous country in the world when it comes to personal giving. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, our rate of giving, measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, is almost twice as high as the next most generous country, New Zealand.
Moreover, whether it be the prospect of Christmas or the approaching end of the tax year, we tend to be at our most generous towards the end the year. Close to 20% of our giving takes place in December alone. In other words we are now in the biggest giving season on the planet.
American generosity began early in our history. Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed to see that Americans did not rely on others, such as government, to save their public problems, rather they did it themselves through “voluntary organizations”. The Founding Fathers were involved too. For example, Ben Franklin clearly took up the torch for philanthropy and created a personal system for civic philanthropy.
These early roots have grown strongly. In 2016 American individuals gave $390 billion to non-profits. The 2017 number is expected to comfortably exceed $400 billion. Not only is the overall level of philanthropy high, the level of participation is similarly impressive. Around two thirds of US households make charitable donations, as do pretty much all households with earnings in excess of $100,000. Perhaps surprisingly, it is people in the middle income levels who give the highest proportion of their income, with people earning $50k-$75k estimated to giving around 7.5%.
Our willingness to give money to private nonprofits to help our community is matched by our creativity when it comes to setting up organizations to help others. There are of course many obvious organizations, but how many people have heard of the “Association for Gravestone Studies” or “Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled”? The latter organization trains capuchin monkeys to provide help to people with serious mobility impairments – and they raised almost $1.5 million in 2016!
Recently my youngest son started his efforts to raise $1,000 as part of a service trip he will be taking to Northern Thailand next spring. The service element is as a result of cooperation with Habitat for Humanity, and the funds will cover building materials. He sent out an email to family and friends requesting support, and within less than an hour he had raised almost $300. I doubt there is anywhere else in the world that would generate such an immediate and generous response.
One of the most fulfilling parts of our work is having the privilege to work with our clients in helping develop strategies for giving, both in terms of the mechanisms to use, such as Donor Advised Funds or Foundations, and in thinking through the focus of their philanthropy. We have learned much through this work about the strength of the non-profit sector, and the generosity of the human spirit.