Some activists today are eager to define what is good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, in other people’s giving. Princeton professor Peter Singer has lately made it almost a career to pronounce that only certain kinds of philanthropic contributions ought to be considered truly in the public interest. Only money given directly to “the poor” should be counted as charitable, he and others argue.
Former NPR executive Ken Stern constructed a recent book on this same idea that charity must be “dedicated to serving the poor and needy.” Noting that many philanthropists go far beyond that limited population, he complains that it is “astonishingly easy to start a charity. The IRS approves over 99.5 percent of all charitable applications.” He disapprovingly lists nonprofits “that have little connection to common notions of doing good: the Sugar Bowl, the U.S. Golf Association, the Renegade Roller Derby team in Bend, Oregon, and the All Colorado Beer Festival, just to name a few.”
Is that a humane argument? Without question, the philanthropy for the downtrodden launched by people like Stephen Girard, Nicholas Longworth, Jean Louis, the Tappans, Milton Hershey, Albert Lexie, and Father Damien is deeply impressive. But the idea that only generosity aimed directly at the poor (or those who agitate in their name) should count as philanthropic is astoundingly narrow and shortsighted. Meddling premised on this view would horribly constrict the natural outpouring of human creativity.
Who is to say that Ned McIlhenny’s leaps to preserve the Negro spiritual, or rescue the snowy egret, were less worthy than income-boosting? Was the check that catalyzed Harper Lee’s classic novel bad philanthropy? Were there better uses for Alfred Loomis’s funds and volunteer management genius than beating the Nazis and Imperial Japanese military?
Even if you insist on the crude utilitarian view that only direct aid to the poor should count as charity, the reality is that many of the most important interventions that reduce poverty over time have nothing to do with alms. By building up MIT, George Eastman struck a mighty blow to increase prosperity and improve the health and safety of everyday life—benefiting individuals at all points of the economic spectrum. Givers who establish good charter schools today are doing more to break cycles of human failure than any welfare transfer has ever achieved. Donors who fund science, abstract knowledge, and new learning pour the deep concrete footings of economic success that have made us history’s most aberrant nation—where the poor improve their lot as much as other citizens, and often far more.
Fully 47 Nobel science-prize winners received significant financial support from Rockefeller before they earned their awards.
And what of the private donors who stoke the fires of imagination, moral understanding, personal character, and inspiration? Is artistic and religious philanthropy just the dabbling of bored and vain wealth-holders? Aren’t people of all income levels lifted up when the human spirit is cultivated and celebrated in a wondrous story, or haunting piece of music, or awe-engendering cathedral?
When a donation is offered to unlock some secret of science, or feed an inspiring art, or attack some cruel disease, one can never count on any precise result. But any definition which denies humanitarian value to such giving is crabbed and foolish. Much of the power and beauty of American philanthropy derives from its vast range, and the riot of causes we underwrite in our millions of donations.
To illustrate this, let’s take a somewhat random whirl through some of the evidence packed into The Almanac of American Philanthropy. We’ll begin with very tangible products like historic buildings and parks, consider services like medicine and education, and touch on more ethereal accomplishments in fields like the arts.
The wild richness of American philanthropy
How many readers know that some of America’s top cultural treasures—the homes of our founders—are preserved and kept open to the public not by the National Park Service or other agency of government but rather by privately funded nonprofits? George Washington’s Mount Vernon was saved from ruin by thousands of small donors, and today thrives under the ownership of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. The separate home where Washington was born was also retrieved from oblivion by a mix of small donors plus John Rockefeller Jr. Likewise, Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s residence sometimes described as his “greatest creation”—has been protected and interpreted to visitors for about a century by a private foundation that receives no government funding. Ditto for Montpelier, the nearby home of the father of our Constitution, James Madison.
The summer cottage where Abraham Lincoln spent a quarter of his Presidency and made some of his most momentous decisions, including formulating the Emancipation Proclamation, was a neglected part of American history until private donors came along to restore it and open it to the public in 2008. Williamsburg, Touro Synagogue, Greenfield Village, Mystic Seaport, Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, Old Salem—these beloved historic sites and scads of others have been saved for future generations by philanthropy, not taxpayers.
Our great cathedrals are products of private giving. St. John the Divine, one of the most monumental Christian edifices in the world, was begun in New York City with gifts from J. P. Morgan, and raised up over decades via thousands of small donations. Riverside Church, a grand gothic pile just another ten blocks up Broadway, was a gift of John Rockefeller Jr. The National Cathedral in Washington, the second-largest such church in the country after St. John (and probably the last pure Gothic cathedral that will ever be built), was a flowering of mass philanthropy, built over a period of 97 years as small funds donated by the public pooled up.
Our cathedrals of human learning—libraries—are also an invention of philanthropy. Ben Franklin promulgated the idea that in a democratic nation like America, everyday people should have easy access to books, and that making them available is a worthy calling for the generous. Even the rough-and-ready city of New Orleans in 1824 got a Free Library courtesy of Judah Touro, who also helped endow the Redwood Library in Newport. John Jacob Astor, James Lenox, and Samuel Tilden gave millions between 1849 and 1886 to create what became the New York Public Library. Financier Joshua Bates launched the Boston Public Library, and Enoch Pratt provided brilliant planning as well as money for a magnificent multi-branch library in Baltimore that inspired Andrew Carnegie to create more than 2,500 other libraries in the decades following. Today there are 16,000 public libraries in the U.S. and they are visited a billion and a half times every year.
Many magnificent parks are also fruits of philanthropy. In the mid-1850s, donors started giving lovely botanical gardens to the public in various cities. The list of national parks sparked by donors is long and stretches from Maine’s Acadia to the Virgin Islands, from Great Smoky to Grand Teton.
A recent research report declared that thanks to philanthropy we are currently living in the golden age of urban parks. Inspired by the success of the Central Park Conservancy, which donors created to bring New York City’s green haven back from the brink of disastrous decay and disorder, conservancies have spread all across the country, creating parks that delight citizens by the millions. Manhattan’s High Line, Discovery Green in Houston, Chicago’s 606 trail, the new $350 million oasis springing up in Tulsa, Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park carved out of thin air over a busy freeway—these are all new gifts. And tired or underdeveloped older recreation areas like Shelby Farms in Memphis, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Buffalo Bayou in Houston, the Olmsted parks in Louisville, and our National Mall are also being renovated and expanded in much-loved ways thanks to generous givers.
Clever ideas as well as private money have been at the center of miraculous recoveries of several endangered species. The peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth when flying, but as a reproducer it had become such a snail that it was flirting with extinction. Government biologists tried to speed its breeding but failed. Then a grant from the IBM Corporation mixed with small donations from falconry hobbyists allowed birders to experiment with some unconventional ideas (including that city skyscrapers might be among the best places for the height-loving, pigeon-dining creatures to make their comeback). Today, the peregrine is out of danger. Fresh ideas and donor funds were similarly crucial in the comebacks of the wolf, the bluebird, whooping cranes, wild turkeys, the swift fox, Florida panther, and many threatened waterfowl.
Philanthropy isn’t going to bring dinosaurs back to life. It has, however, fueled much of the paleontology that has dramatically transformed the field in recent decades. Jack Horner has levered $12 million of donations into radical new understandings that some dinosaurs exhibited mothering behaviors, that millions-of-years-old bones can contain soft-tissue residues that explain biological secrets, and that the T. Rex may have been as much scavenger as predator. And voluntary donations have been vital in making dinosaurs real for their fans, via imaginative new museum exhibits in places like Montana, the Smithsonian, and New York City’s Museum of Natural History.
Medical philanthropy has had many splendid triumphs. After World War II, the entire budget of the National Institutes of Health was less than $10 million, and the major forces in biomedical research were smart donors. The John Hartford Foundation was smart indeed, catalyzing many advances in health care during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s with its grants in areas like immunology, organ rejection, development of the artificial heart, microneurosurgery, and cancer research.
Hartford was a special savior for the many people suffering from kidney failure. They funded some of the world’s first successful kidney transplants at Boston’s Brigham Hospital, and underwrote creation of the important professional societies where kidney specialists exchange information. Hartford made kidney dialysis practical, funding the machines created for the world’s first out-of-hospital dialysis center. For the one out of every 100,000 Americans who experience kidney failure, these gifts lifted a death sentence.
In similar fashion, Uncas Whitaker more or less willed the new field of biomedical engineering into legitimacy by leaving $700 million for that sole purpose when he died in 1975. The trustees of his bequest pushed the money out the door quickly and wisely, at a time when most universities and the government medical-funding agencies opposed a blending of engineering and medical disciplines. The Whitaker efforts created curricula for the new field and funded inaugural research projects. They paid for classrooms, labs, and 13 entire buildings. They gave dozens of colleges the money to hire dual-purpose faculty, fellows, and interns, and otherwise encouraged talented people to take up work at the intersection of technology and medicine. They spawned professional societies, and launched the careers of 1,500 biomedical engineers who founded more than 100 companies and accumulated over 400 patents or property licenses.
Philanthropists come in all stripes. That’s one of the field’s strengths: Different givers pursue different visions, so you get many solutions to problems rather than just one.
The results are dramatic. Biomedical engineering has become the fastest growing specialty in all of engineering. And revolutionary products like lab-grown skin and organs, laser surgery, advanced prosthetics, large-scale joint replacement, cochlear implants, and hundreds of other miracles are now commonplace.
Like overlooked medical disciplines, philanthropy has been helpful in bringing new attention to overlooked diseases. Autism was barely understood when philanthropists offered the funds for deeper research and wider public education. Schizophrenia, certain kinds of blindness, and prostate and breast cancer have all receded in the face of donor pressure.
Huntington’s Disease afflicts one out of every 10,000 Americans and there is no cure for the slow, suffocating killer. It gets modest attention from the NIH. Throughout the past decade and a half, though, philanthropist Andrew Shechtel has stimulated expansive new research on the affliction via $732 million in donations.
Philanthropists have also done marvelous things on the social side of medical care. They have, for instance, funded giant advances in palliative care and patient comfort—creating the Fisher Houses, which now unite wounded servicemembers with their families during treatment, and the Ronald McDonald houses which do the same for sick children. Humane hospice care was brought to America by philanthropists starting in 1974.
It isn’t just in the field of medicine that donors have been able to save and improve lives. Literally hundreds of millions of people have avoided starvation thanks to the crucial foundation investments that created the Green Revolution. Today, the Gates Foundation is putting money into extending the agricultural progress of the Green Revolution across Africa.
It is estimated that tobacco could kill a billion people globally during the present century. Philanthropists are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in educational efforts to head off many of those deaths. Dangerous roads that kill thousands of people in developing countries every year are another area where donors have recently started working creatively to save lives.
Disaster zones are one of the most visible realms where the philanthropic impulse does battle against danger and chaos. From the Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse to World Vision and Doctors Without Borders, there are many vehicles and vessels through which the generous now act to rescue the perishing. There is a long list of philanthropic outpourings in response to earthquakes, for instance: San Francisco in 1906, Italy in 1909, Armenia in 1989, Haiti in 2010, and so on. The largest recent charitable gushes in response to cruel twists of fate were the $2.8 billion donated by Americans after the 9/11 attacks, and the $5.3 billion offered up after Hurricane Katrina.
Philanthropy doesn’t just fill bellies and fill pockets. It also fills heads with productive knowledge, and souls with inspiration and ideas. Education, religion, giving to culture and the arts are primeval philanthropic imperatives.
Philanthropy is, for instance, the central factor behind the greatness of American universities. Donors like Mary Garrett didn’t just give the money to create learning citadels (in her case, the Johns Hopkins medical school), they also demanded business-like procedures and reforms that separated U.S. colleges from their European predecessors. Garrett insisted, in return for her support, that Hopkins raise its academic standards, and accept women into its medical school on an equal footing with men, making it the first place those two things were accomplished.
Today, more than a half-billion dollars of private giving is creating a remarkable new campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island where cutting-edge engineering and entrepreneurship training will be combined under the aegis of Cornell University. Donors also brought in as a partner Technion, the Israeli university that has proven itself as one of the most effective in the world at spinning off lab discoveries as useful products. Cornell Tech, as the new institution will be called, has great promise of becoming a hub that not only provides superb student training but also generates a flood of economic productivity in the surrounding region, à la MIT or Stanford (two other products of entrepreneurial philanthropy).
Within just the last 20 years, donors have powered what I suspect historians will someday categorize as the most important social invention of our time—the charter school. As this book is published, 3 million children are attending 7,000 charter schools, and both of those numbers are rising rapidly (from zero just a couple decades earlier). Even more remarkably, the top charters have invented starkly original techniques and procedures that allow them to take children with harsh life disadvantages and dreadful conventional schools in their neighborhoods, and lift them into well-above-average academic results.
The 9,000 students at the Uncommon Schools charter network are 98 percent minority and 78 percent low-income, yet all seniors take the SAT, and their average score is 20 points above the college-readiness benchmark. At KIPP schools, 95 percent of the 70,000 students are minority and 87 percent are low-income, yet 82 percent go to college. In New York City, the average charter-school student now absorbs five months of extra learning per year in math and one extra month in reading, compared with counterparts in conventional public schools.
In the U.S., philanthropy is the rain that keeps the tree of artistic life in bud. Consider symphony orchestras. Fully half of their income today comes from donations (33 percent from annual gifts, 16 percent from revenue off of endowments given previously). Only 6 percent of symphony funds come from local, state, or federal government support. (The rest comes from concert income.)
The story is about the same for other arts. Nonprofit arts institutions as a whole currently get 45 percent of their budgets from donors. Subtract the philanthropy and our lives immediately become duller, flatter, darker, more silent.
Philanthropy is the rain that keeps the tree of artistic life in bud.
Voluntary support for artistic activity in our country sprawls across a delightful range of fields. The little gems are often just as sparkly as the big diamonds. Take the Van Cliburn piano competition. Established in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1962 by local donors anxious to encourage gifted players like their native son Mr. Cliburn, it is a kind of Olympiad for young and amateur piano players. Every four years, the greatest rising stars in the world descend on Bass Hall and play until their fingers can flutter no more. Spectacular performances are available not only to the live listeners but also to broadcast, Internet, and film audiences.
George Eastman’s pet project, his School of Music and the 3,100-seat hall he built for it, remains one of the treasures of American culture. He created the venue to be much more open and welcoming to audiences than European concert halls, and programmed it from the very beginning not only with classical music but also with other arts like film (which was then considered a vulgar and unserious trifle). Eastman made Martha Graham’s career by bringing her in to choreograph avant-garde dances that could be presented between film reels to mass audiences who would never darken the door of a ballet performance.
Now that it is recognized as both a potential art form and a potent shaper of popular culture and opinion, film has become a field of interest to other savvy philanthropists. The individual most committed at present is the former co-founder of eBay, Jeff Skoll, who has poured hundreds of millions of his dollars into an operation that makes popular movies with a message. He also funds a “social-action campaign” for each release, which encourages people to alter their thinking and behavior based on what they have seen. Skoll has convinced big names like Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, and George Clooney to take roles in his filmanthropy, which has hit some popular and creative nerves. A charmed Hollywood establishment has given more than 30 Oscar nominations to his pictures—which include works like The Help, Syriana, Lincoln, Charlie Wilson’s War, Waiting for Superman, and An Inconvenient Truth (which brought Al Gore his Nobel Peace Prize).
Creative work undertaken under the banner of art and culture can also yield practical progress in unexpected ways. In the days before mass media, two donors—library and art patron Ada Moore, and the Carnegie Corporation—gave money to the American Foundation for the Blind to fund a crash program to bring books to the sightless in some practical audio form. The foundation decided to see if a brand-new patent for what was being called the “long-playing record,” or LP, might work.
LPs were much larger and slower-spinning than the 78-rpm records that were then popular, and thus allowed four times as much material on each side, making them practical for extended readings from books. The AFB experimented with making discs out of various materials, seeking one durable enough to stand up to shipping from house to house among blind subscribers. They eventually settled on vinyl. The foundation also had to build the first players for the records.
This philanthropic product-development effort succeeded, and “Talking Books” began to be shipped around the country, leaving blind Americans wide-eyed with wonder at the joys of literature. For the first 14 years of its existence, the LP record funded by Moore and Carnegie was enjoyed exclusively by the blind. Only later did CBS turn it into a medium for the general public to play music. A charitable creation thus became a big part of American pop culture.
Click here to read Part III, "Fixing Problems via Philanthropy vs. Government"