As our economy and social life shut down this spring, there was one part of American society that kicked into a higher rather than lower gear—philanthropy. Despite lockdowns, layoffs, stock-market collapses, and stay-at-home orders, many donors increased their giving. This has been true of both institutions and individuals, large givers and our masses of small givers.
Individuals gave away 60 percent more this March and April than last March and April, according to recent information from 64 different community foundations across the country. Two different public-opinion surveys this spring found that 80 to 90 percent of everyday citizens will maintain or increase their giving this year despite our national crisis. Gifts like these cumulate in powerful ways. In 2019, Americans voluntarily gave away $450 billion in cash, and approaching that much more in the value of their donated labor, improving national life in many ways.
Reacting to a calamity by making gifts to others is a beautiful reflex—yet quite counterintuitive in terms of self-interest. You would expect that when storm clouds gather, voluntary giveaways would be one of the first things cut back. But that is not the way Americans react.
Drawing on many decades of data, across a variety of serious downturns, University of Chicago economist John List and other scholars have shown that people in the U.S. continue to make charitable donations with great steadiness even during times of economic distress. Sometimes—including right now—they actually increase their philanthropic giving amidst ugly events.
So philanthropy has stepped up to our virus emergency. The performance of government functionaries has been less impressive. From the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to the World Health Organization, responses to the coronavirus disaster by our public agencies have been error-ridden and weak.
To be fair, a new threat like this will always be hard for a bureaucracy to prepare for, adapt to, and cope with. And that is a prime argument on behalf of diffuse voluntary action. Rather than putting all of our eggs in a few rigid baskets at the WHO or CDC or NIH, philanthropy relies on a sprawling variety of strategies, ideas, and money flows. Private giving seeds thousands of distinct organisms across society, and the ones that grow loveliest get copied by others.
Critics often carp that philanthropy is a crazy quilt, inconsistent, fractured into thousands of pieces rather than unified under central direction as they would prefer. However, as policy expert Christopher DeMuth has pointed out, “diversified centers of authority and initiative are not a problem, or a luxury.” Rather, developing the widest possible mix of sources of response and action is “the key to resilience in the face of emergencies large and small.”
Far from being ineffective, distracting, socially divisive, or a threat to government success, having deep ranks of alternative private problem-solvers spread throughout the land is extraordinarily valuable. We are fortunate to have thousands of nodes within our civil society attacking covid-19 right now, each in their own way.
And the value of philanthropy goes beyond its pluralism, its diversity of strategies, its experimental nature, its efficiency. Spontaneous problem-solving by citizens acting voluntarily is also much gentler on individual autonomy and personal liberty than state mandates. Donors know they can’t order Americans to do anything. So instead they are encouraging, assisting, volunteering, and boosting cooperative behavior. They are feeding our better angels.
There is also a vital emotional component when people act out of free will. Yale investigator Nicholas Christakis notes that wholesome behaviors like sharing, goodwill, and positivity are actually contagious. You might think of them as good viruses. Human societies “magnify whatever they are seeded with.” Research shows that if you pour “love and altruism and happiness” into a population, magnified versions of all of those qualities will echo through the group. Individuals with happy friends become more happy themselves. People surrounded by generosity turn generous in their own right.
So America’s millions of energetic donors can be proud of the role they’ve played in helping our nation navigate today’s coronavirus trauma. They’ve lifted burdens and solved shortages and sped healing. And they’ve raised spirits at least in tandem with their raising of resources. You can expect much more that is good and great from U.S. givers in the months to come.
This adaptation of the “Benefactions” essay in the forthcoming Summer 2020 issue of Philanthropy magazine was published by The Hill on June 26.