Presented below are the welcome remarks delivered by Adam Meyerson, president of The Philanthropy Roundtable, to the 21st Annual Meeting on October 11, 2012, in Palm Beach, Florida.
This is a year of great national decision. The American people will make fundamental choices about the future of economic growth and job creation, national security, the role of government in health care, and the independence of our civil society. Many in this room are leaders in our national debates, as philanthropy is supporting and making possible reasoned arguments on all sides. And whomever you plan to vote for, we are delighted to welcome you. Whether you are a newcomer or a long-time friend, I personally want to thank every single person at this conference.
We’re delighted to be in this historic property originally built by Henry Flagler. Flagler grew up in poverty, founded Standard Oil in partnership with another formerly poor boy named John D. Rockefeller, and went on to found Miami and West Palm Beach and the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to Key West.
Wealth creation and philanthropy have always gone together in America.
Like so many business leaders in America, Henry Flagler was also a philanthropist. He built many of Florida’s first hospitals. He built churches. He constructed a school for African Americans in St. Augustine. His widow’s family, the Kenans, went on to be one of the great philanthropic families in North Carolina higher education—and some of them are with us today.
In America, as the story of Henry Flagler suggests, wealth creation and philanthropy have always gone together. From Ben Franklin to Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, great business entrepreneurs have sought to be great philanthropists. It’s not just because they have the money. It’s because they have the leadership, the vision, the passion to innovate, and the analytic skills to assess what works. And it’s because in a competitive market economy like ours, the principal way to make money is by serving others. So it’s no accident that people who are superb at serving others in business will seek to serve others through philanthropy as well.
At dinner this evening we will celebrate the charitable achievements of a great business entrepreneur, Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot and winner of the 2012 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. Creator of the world’s largest aquarium, a pioneer in funding autism and spinal cord and brain trauma research, a staunch defender of free enterprise, Bernie attributes his commitment to philanthropy to his mother. “We lived in a tenement,” Bernie says. “We had no money.” Occasionally, as a special treat, a nickel would be spent for ice cream. But just as often “My mother would say, ‘We can’t have the ice cream today, we’re planting a tree in Israel instead,’” and the nickel would be sent off to Israel or to another charitable cause. Says Bernie: “I grew up knowing that giving is what you do. It’s bred into me.”
We also hope you will join us this afternoon at our launch of the Philanthropy Hall of Fame. This will be one of the most engaging and interactive parts of the entire conference. You will have a chance to vote on six nominations for the most inspiring and influential philanthropist in American history—is it Franklin? Rockefeller? Carnegie? Julius Rosenwald? John M. Olin? You choose.
One of my favorite nominations, who really stands in for the American people, is Oseola McCarty. She is the African-American washerwoman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who never owned a car or a color TV and donated her life savings of $150,000 for scholarships at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the American spirit of giving. Charitable giving has never been just the work of the wealthy. Giving is central to our character as a free self-governing people.
America is the most charitable country on earth. No other country comes close.
For the last 50 years, Americans have voluntarily given 2 percent of gross domestic product for charitable causes. In Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and other major industrial democracies, charitable giving is 1 percent of the economy or lower.
Last year, Americans gave an astonishing $300 billion to charity. To put that in perspective, consider a few comparisons.
There are a lot of news stories this year about political fund-raising. Well, Americans give 50 times as much to charity as we give to politics. It’s estimated that this year Americans will give a record $6 billion to political candidates, parties, 529s, Super-PACs, and other election instruments. Americans routinely give that much to charity every week.
We spend 10 times as much on charitable giving as we do on professional sports. The NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League are together expected to earn $24 billion in revenue this year. Americans give that much to charity every month.
Charitable giving is central to American society. It is the lifeblood of our churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions. It has helped to make our colleges and universities, public as well as private, the best in the world. It is indispensable for the flourishing of the arts, science and medicine, and the protection of habitat. It provides food for the hungry, care for the sick, shelter for the homeless.
Charitable giving also has the potential to do much more for America. Imagine if instead of 2 percent of GDP, Americans voluntarily gave 3 percent. At the current level of the economy, that would be an additional $150 billion.
Charitable giving has never been just the work of the wealthy: it is central to our character as a free self-governing people.
What would $150 billion in additional charitable giving do for our country? We can’t say for sure, because the essence of charitable giving is voluntary: individuals and foundations make their own decisions, following their own interests and passions and their own convictions about how and where they can best make a difference. The Philanthropy Roundtable and our Alliance for Charitable Reform are committed to protecting your freedom to make your own charitable decisions.
But I ask you to imagine how a substantial increase in charitable giving could help to achieve breakthrough solutions for some of our national crises.
More charitable giving could provide fresh thinking about how to offer hope and opportunity for low-income families and neighborhoods. The federal government now spends $900 billion a year on means-tested programs for the poor—such as food stamps, refundable tax credits, housing vouchers, and Medicaid. This safety net has dramatically reduced hunger, homelessness, and other forms of material poverty. Unfortunately, it has also coincided with the collapse of families, the breakdown of the social fabric, and a slowdown in upward mobility. Millions of Americans now feel trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder. There is not much the government can do to repair the social fabric, put families back together, or restore a sense of optimism that the American Dream is still open for those who work hard. That is primarily the work of cultural institutions and civil society: churches and other religious congregations, mentoring programs, microfinance lenders, character-teaching programs such as youth sports and Scouting. A new infusion of philanthropy focused on strengthening families and communities could make a huge difference.
A second great opportunity is to ramp up philanthropic spending on K-12 reform. One of the greatest success stories of charitable giving in our times is the growth of multiple charter-school and religious-school networks where low-income children excel academically. These proof points, made possible by philanthropy, offer solutions for the crisis in K-12 education. But we don’t have enough of them. Substantial increases in K-12 giving could take these success stories to scale, and overcome the barriers in public policy that prevent public school systems from replicating this success.
A third opportunity for donors is to strengthen important institutions that can no longer depend as much on government funding. For example, the future of our flagship state universities is in jeopardy at a time of tight state budgets and unsustainable tuition increases. Donors are in a position to protect excellence and to drive major reforms on these campuses, such as encouraging more serious teaching of American history. Similarly, private funders can strengthen community colleges with effective track records in career training and upward mobility.
What would it take to raise charitable giving by $150 billion—from 2 percent from 3 percent? Here are a few thoughts.
To begin with, America would need to restore vigorous economic growth. A vibrant private sector economy generates the wealth that makes philanthropy possible.
Now is not the time to limit or abandon the charitable deduction which has been so important for communities across this land. Public policy should encourage, not discourage, giving, and The Philanthropy Roundtable is committed to protecting the charitable deduction.
It would help to see a strengthening of religion. That’s because active religious faith and observance are the great drivers of giving. Americans who go to church or other religious institutions weekly give three times as much a percentage of their income as do Americans who rarely attend religious services.
Perhaps most important is for American citizens, both religious and secular, to build on our long tradition of civic leadership—and to step forward as individuals and private associations to solve the problems of our communities, without waiting for government to act.