However much movement there’s been since Tocqueville’s day—and in the last quarter-century in particular—toward lessening America’s historic ideological exceptionalism, we remain distinctive. It isn’t surprising, then, that we continue to stand out in rates of civic engagement. Management guru Peter Drucker calls voluntary group action “that peculiarly American form of behavior.” He argues that “nothing sets this country as much apart from the rest of the Western World as its almost instinctive reliance on voluntary, and often spontaneous, group action for the most important social purposes.” A growing body of empirical data supports this assertion and its application to the contemporary scene, not just to the past.
Until recently, systematic cross-national data on group participation and voluntarism were as scarce as hens’ teeth. Even now, set against the enormous amount of other social and economic data collected, it is in remarkably short supply. Researchers Lester Salamon and Helmut Anheier note that “despite its importance, the nonprofit, or civil society, sector has remained an uncharted subcontinent on the social landscape. One reason for this is doubtless empirical. The data systems used to gather information about the structure of economic life have systematically overlooked this sector or essentially defined it away.”
(World) Values Clarification
This oversight is finally being remedied. The World Values surveys, conducted in many countries between 1990 and 1993, gave respondents lists of voluntary groups and private associations and asked them which, if any, they belonged to. Only 18 percent of Americans said they belonged to none, compared with 33 percent of West Germans, 35 percent of Canadians, 61 percent of the French, and 64 percent of Japanese. At the other end of the continuum, 19 percent of Americans belonged to four or more groups, as against 4 percent of Italians and 4 percent of the French. Of all the countries covered in these surveys, only the Netherlands rivaled the United States in frequency of group memberships; just 15 percent of Netherlands respondents reported belonging to no group—actually lower than the 18 percent so reporting in the United States, though the difference isn’t meaningful statistically. America leads all countries in the proportion of its population belonging to religious organizations, while the Netherlands leads everyone in membership in environmental, educational, and cultural groups. A follow-up series of World Values surveys taken between 1995 and 1997 shows this same U.S. distinctiveness.
America’s ethic of personal responsibility is typically not the harsh individualism portrayed by critics. We may be less inclined than other peoples to rely on governmental efforts on behalf of the needy, but we are far more inclined to back private efforts and to stress our common individual responsibility. Virginia Hodgkinson, former vice president for research at Independent Sector, writes that Americans believe that individuals have the responsibility “to help others in need and to improve the quality of their communities. In the 1988 Independent Sector survey, 75 percent agreed that it is the responsibility of individuals to give what they can to charity.” She contrasted this response to that given to the same question in Great Britain in the 1988 Charity Household Survey: Only 46 percent thought that individuals had the responsibility to give what they could. And while this or comparable questions haven’t been asked in broader cross-national surveys of giving, Hodgkinson notes that “other available data suggest that many in Western Europe and in Canada rely on strong government intervention to assist people in need. In the United States, most believe that helping others is an individual obligation as well as the responsibility of government.”
For nearly a decade now, the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project has conducted surveys of giving and volunteering in Western Europe, modeled after those done in the U.S. by Gallup for Independent Sector. Surveys taken in Germany and France in 1991 found just 13 and 19 percent, respectively, saying they had volunteered their services for civic activities in the preceding year, compared with 49 percent so reporting in the Independent Sector study done at about the same time. Similarly, whereas 43 percent of French respondents and 44 percent of Germans had made financial contributions in the previous twelve months, 73 percent of Americans reported having done so. Anheier and his colleagues noted too that “the average sum of money donated. . . amounted to $851 in the U.S., $120 in Germany, and $96 in France . . . [T]he average U.S. contribution outweighs the French and German ones seven or eight fold.” Americans donated about 1.2 percent of their annual incomes in 1991—a proportion that has remained constant. In contrast, Germans donated just 0.3 percent of their income and the French just 0.15 of theirs.
Charity Begins. . . with Religion
As in other comparative survey research, the Johns Hopkins studies found “the religion factor” shaping a major difference between U.S. and Western European giving patterns. The absence of a state church benefiting from tax support sets America apart. In Germany, both the Catholic and Lutheran churches receive billions of marks annually from government-imposed church taxes. Citizens decide which church will get their “contribution,” but they can’t decide not to pay it. Excluding these funds, only about one-quarter of Germans in the Johns Hopkins studies made church contributions; the proportion was even lower—9 percent—in France. In contrast, the 1991 Gallup survey for Independent Sector found 51 percent of U.S. respondents saying they had made contributions to religious groups in the previous year, and the gap between the proportion of Americans volunteering their time for church-related community activities as compared with their German and French counterparts was even wider.
The Johns Hopkins research finds comparable patterns in each country in the rates at which various social groups contribute and volunteer. In the three countries covered by the 1991 surveys, for example, frequent church attendees were more likely to give and volunteer than non-attendees, and those with high socioeconomic status were more likely than those of lower status.
Lester Salamon, Helmut Anheier, and their colleagues completed a major study in 1996 of the scope, organizational structure, financial base, and role of the “nonprofit sector” in a broad selection of countries from North America and Western Europe, plus Egypt, Thailand, India, and Japan. They focused on what they called the “key institutional component of civil society: the private voluntary, or nonprofit, sector, which we define as a set of entities that is (1) organized, (2) private, (3) non-profit-distributing, (4) self-governing, and (5) voluntary to some meaningful extent.” They didn’t examine groups involved in religious life or individuals’ participation outside of formal organizational settings. The Hopkins investigators found that the civil society sector is now a major force in most of the countries they examined, its presence far more widespread than is typically thought.
[T]he number of associations has increased substantially in recent years. In France, over 60,000 associations were created in 1990 alone, compared to less than 18,000 in 1961. Similarly, in Germany, the number of associations per 100,000 population nearly tripled from 160 in 1960 to 475 in 1990. Even Hungary, within two years of the fall of communist rule, boasted over 13,000 associations. And Sweden, often regarded as the prototypical welfare state, displays some of the highest participation rates in civil society worldwide: Most Swedes belong to one or more of the country’s close to 200,000 membership associations, creating a dense social network of 2,300 associations per 100,000 population.
Salamon and Anheier sum up their research findings as showing a “global associational revolution of extraordinary scope and dimensions.” Nonetheless, the United States continues to stand out in the reach of its nonprofit sector. We not only have more voluntary, nonprofit civic activity than other countries, but also more private, nonprofit organizations. The IRS’s master list of nonprofits (tax-exempt organizations) reached over 1.1 million in 1994, up by 200,000 from seven years earlier. According to the Johns Hopkins research, American nonprofits spent nearly $350 billion in 1990, or 6.3 percent of GDP. British nonprofits ranked closest to the United States, spending 4.8 percent of GDP. Italy, with a population roughly one-fifth that of the United States, ranked far below. A much higher proportion of Americans than of other nationals find employment in nonprofit organizations: 6.9 percent of total employment in the United States, compared with 4 percent in the U.K. and 2.5 percent in Japan.
Government Failure or Government Appendage?
In describing the expanding role of nonprofits in countries with diverse historical traditions and rates of industrial development, Salamon and Anheier reject “the dominant ‘market failure/government failure’ theory and the conservative concept of an inherent conflict between the nonprofit sector and the state that is a natural corollary of it.” They note that influential conservative analysts like Robert Nisbet have found government “a bureaucratic monolith inherently hostile to alternative centers of power. As the state expands, it therefore renders voluntary organizations functionally irrelevant, thereby contributing to their decline and undermining the spirit community which they sustain.”
Instead, Salamon and Anheier argue, while there are instances where the state militates against an active civil society sector—with 20th-century totalitarianism obviously the most thoroughgoing and tragic—“there are at least as many where the relationship is one of interdependence and mutual support. This is clearly evident in the striking record of governmental support for the nonprofit sector . . . . The state has emerged in the modern era not as a displacer of nonprofit activity, but as perhaps the major ‘philanthropist,’ underwriting nonprofit activity and significantly extending its reach.” The authors point out as well, though, contemporary cases in democracies where government’s hand among nonprofits is too heavy. They cite in particular Japan, “where nonprofit organizations have been actively enlisted in the provision of state-financed services, but always on terms defined mostly, indeed almost exclusively by the state. The upshot has been to convert nonprofit organizations into mere ‘agents’ of the state, rather than true ‘partners’ with it.”
Sorting out, for the United States or any other country, instances where government action encourages and vitalizes nonprofits from those where government tends to dominate, turning them into quasi-governmental appendages, is well beyond the reach of my inquiry here. I do agree with Salamon and Anheier that there is no necessary opposition between on the one hand a substantial governmental role in extending services and ministering to community needs and on the other an active civic engagement that is truly independent, self-starting, and voluntaristic. But it must be noted that the vast expansion of the nonprofit sector that the Johns Hopkins investigators have found seems to have resulted in large measure from the spread of individualism around the world, along with increased doubts about reliance on state action.
America continues to stand out as a nation of joiners. This is most dramatically the case with regard to participation at churches and in other religious organizations. Elsewhere, though, the latest global data point to a widespread expansion of associational engagement. In general, the nongovernmental dimension of civic life is growing in many countries. Thus, Tocqueville’s prediction that other nations will follow, on their own terms, the course the United States first charted is being borne out.
Dr. Everett Carll Ladd has just retired as executive director and president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. He is now on leave writing a history of polling in the United States. His book The Ladd Report, from which this article is adapted, was published this year by the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Copyright (c) 1999 by Everett Carll Ladd. Reprinted by permission.