Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable. This is extracted and adapted from “The Generosity of America,” his January 8, 2010, speech to Hillsdale College which was also published in Imprimis.
Throughout our history, Americans from all walks of life have given generously for charitable causes. Indeed, the most generous Americans today—the group that gives the most to charity as a proportion of their income—are the working poor.
Historically, Americans did not raise funds by appealing to donors’ guilt, or by urging them to “give back” to society. Instead, they appealed to their fellow citizens’ ideals and aspirations, their religious principles, and their desire to create.
Government should not be picking winners and losers in philanthropic giving. Americans should make their charitable decisions themselves.
The tradition of private generosity in America has always been central to our free society. For instance, thousands of voluntary donations from the farm families of the Midwest made it possible for Hillsdale College to be independent, which in turn gave it the freedom to challenge prevailing cultural and political wisdom. Following another private institution, Oberlin, Hillsdale was the second American college to grant four-year liberal-arts degrees to women. Founded at a time when Michigan public schools were officially segregated by race, Hillsdale was also the first American college to prohibit in its charter any discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex. Without the independence that comes from private support, Hillsdale would not have been able to provide this leadership.
The creation of Hillsdale College was part of a larger philanthropic movement to create an educated citizenry, with the character and the knowledge to govern themselves as a free people. Every town in our decentralized republic wanted its own college, both to promote economic opportunity and to encourage citizen leadership. Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin cites an amazing statistic: in 1880, the state of Ohio, with three million inhabitants, had 37 colleges; by contrast, England, with 23 million people, had four degree-granting institutions. It was philanthropy that enabled colleges across America to grow and flourish.
I have dwelt at length on higher education, but I could offer similar remarks about museums and orchestras, hospitals and health clinics, churches and synagogues, refuges for animals, protection of habitat, youth programs such as scouting and little league and boys and girls clubs, and grassroots problem-solvers who help the needy and homeless in their neighborhoods. Private charitable giving sustains all of these institutions and gives them the freedom to make their own decisions. Private charitable giving is also at the heart and soul of public discourse in our democracy. It makes possible our great think tanks, whether left, right, or center. Name a great issue of public debate today: climate change, the role of government in health care, school choice, stem cell research, same-sex marriage. On all these issues, private philanthropy enriches debate by enabling organizations with diverse viewpoints to articulate and spread their message.
Last year Americans gave $300 billion to charity. To put this into perspective, that is almost twice what we spent on consumer electronics equipment—equipment including cell phones, iPods and DVD players. Americans gave three times as much to charity last year as we spent on gambling and ten times as much as we spent on professional sports. America is by far the most charitable country in the world. There is no other country that comes close.
One reason America is so charitable is because we respect the freedom and the ability of individuals, and associations of individuals, to make a difference. Americans don’t wait for government or the local nobleman to solve our problems; we find solutions ourselves. For over 200 years, Americans have enjoyed the freedom to decide where and how to give away their money—freedom to sustain cherished institutions or to create new ones. And this freedom to give has in turn been central to independent decision-making throughout our society.
But this freedom to give is now under threat. One threat comes in the form of one-size-fits-all governance and regulatory proposals that would limit the diversity and independence of the charitable world. A second threat is the increasingly common argument that foundation assets are “public money” and that decisions about grant-making should be subject to political control. A third threat to the freedom of American philanthropy is in the form of proposals that would restrict what kind of giving is considered charitable. Government should not be picking winners and losers in philanthropic giving. Americans should make their charitable decisions themselves.
The late Milton Friedman once wrote, “Freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself. . . . Economic freedom is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.” We can similarly say that freedom in philanthropic arrangements is an end in itself, but is also an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.