The holiday shopping season is now in full swing. Yet the day that caps off one of the biggest annual weeks of consumer spending is not another retail holiday, but a day devoted to giving. Giving Tuesday is the symbol of Americans’ exceptional, tremendous and enduring generosity. It is the embodiment of the ethos that private action is often superior to government planning in providing for the common good. As Congress considers President Biden’s social spending bill, another generational expansion of the federal government, now is the time to remember why American philanthropy and private solutions to our most pressing problems are an indispensable part of our free society.
Last year, during one of the most difficult years in recent history, Americans gave a record-shattering $2.47 billion to charities on Giving Tuesday. That was a 29% increase from Giving Tuesday in 2019 and took place amid a devastating global pandemic. 2020 giving was a record-breaking year overall as Americans gave a record-high $471 billion to charity, nearly $1.3 billion per day.
Americans ramped up their giving despite severe economic challenges to address unprecedented needs as well as support social justice efforts. Instead of shrinking back to clear the way for Uncle Sam to save the day, they dug into their wallets and rolled up their sleeves. Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, over 100 COVID-19 relief funds in 49 states and the District of Columbia had been established by partnerships between community foundations, individual donors, private foundations, local governments and nonprofit organizations to provide direct services to those in need. Thanks to private gifts, frontline charities were able to mobilize and accelerate feeding, clothing and sheltering the hardest-hit individuals and families weeks before the first stimulus checks left federal coffers. What would have happened to those families had private philanthropy not stepped up?
While some Americans are generous because they hold a deep-seated distrust of government, many simply have more trust in themselves to fix societal problems. Current partisan efforts to expand federal welfare and work programs would undermine private problem-solving that American philanthropists put into action through their charitable giving every year. A vigorous private sector generates the wealth, income and creativity that makes philanthropy possible. We see this in the lion’s share of charitable giving coming from individuals, giving that would be threatened by legislative efforts to tax away income.
Because of its independence, private philanthropy is markedly different from government problem-solving. First, it is nimble. By bypassing the gridlock of partisanship and bureaucracy, private dollars can be shifted quickly to areas of need, as shown by the many relief funds created during the pandemic. Private philanthropy is flexible; many donors don’t micromanage gifts, but broadly support projects or overall organizations and allow those on the ground to pursue solutions. Private philanthropy is innovative; it can operate like venture capital in that it funds new, experimental ideas that further progress, which oftentimes the government shies away from.
Private philanthropy is also highly individualized, something that central planning cannot or would never do, and is focused on transformation, not just treatment. The government’s solutions to poverty are largely cash or non-cash transfers to a household. That may solve an immediate need for shelter and food, but doesn’t address the root causes that keep individuals trapped. When addiction, mental illness, lack of education and skills, generational poverty and criminal backgrounds are at play, a check is imprisoning not liberating.
Private philanthropy supports charities from Alcoholics Anonymous to Homeboys Industries to mentorship programs. Because service providers know each client and their unique needs, they can provide customized services and individual growth plans that can deliver better results for an individual. The breadth and diversity of the nonprofit sector is a testament to the adage that one size does not fit all.
Beyond fixing problems, private giving is essential to creating and protecting our free society. It supports our freedom to worship, speak freely, learn, live, climb the economic ladder and create.
As Americans receive sundry letters, emails and social media appeals this Giving Tuesday, they should remember this: private giving is the thread that allows problem solvers to weave the beautiful tapestry of civic life in America. The freedom to give when, where and how we choose to organizations benefiting the communities we support truly helps those in need.