Why We Protect Private Giving

We’re hearing a lot of criticism of “privilege” these days. Feelings of entitlement are indeed a bad thing. But there are many widely shared privileges for which we should all be grateful. Like the privilege of living in a free country, one that offers vast opportunity, to any person eager to pursue it. We want those kinds of privileges to be shared with as many Americans as possible. At The Philanthropy Roundtable, we are building a movement of donors who are committed to strengthening our free society, expanding opportunity for Americans of all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, and preserving the blessings of liberty for future generations.

This means protecting and building on America’s long tradition as the most charitable country on earth. Voluntary private giving is central to our character as a nation. It is central to American greatness.

There are three main reasons we are such a charitable country.

First, we are the most religious people of any leading modern economy. The single most important determinant of charitable giving is active religious faith. Americans who worship regularly give more than twice as much to charity as do those who rarely attend religious services. One-third of all charitable giving in America—over $125 billion a year—goes directly through religious organizations. Regular worshipers even give more to secular charities than do those who never or rarely attend religious services.

A second reason America is so charitable is that we recognize and respect the ability of free individuals, and associations of individuals, to make a difference in society. Americans don’t wait for government to solve our problems. On issue after issue, social entrepreneurs and the donors who support them are finding fixes for America’s greatest challenges and pointing the way to reform of our dysfunctional public systems. Examples include charter schools where low-income children achieve and excel. Mental-health clinics for veterans who can’t get the treatment they need at the V.A. Apprenticeships and credentialing programs that help people move up the job ladder.

The third reason for our extraordinary charity is that philanthropy is such an important part of our nation’s business culture. Wealth creation and philanthropy have always gone together in America. They are reflections of the creativity and can-do spirit of a free society. From Benjamin Franklin, who founded the first volunteer fire department, to John D. Rockefeller, who founded the University of Chicago, to Bill Gates, who is seeking to eradicate malaria and polio worldwide, great business entrepreneurs have often shared their successes by becoming great philanthropists. It’s not just because they have the money. It’s because they have the passion and leadership skills to build institutions, and the analytical skills to assess what works.

Throughout American history, donors have enjoyed the freedom to make their own charitable decisions. And our nation has benefited from the vast range of experiments launched by different givers. Unlike elected leaders, donors are not bound by politics. Unlike businesses, they do not have to make money. Their independence has enabled them to support bold, sometimes unconventional, even unpopular initiatives.

The opponents of philanthropy contend that donors would do more for humanity if they transferred their assets to government through higher taxes, rather than investing in charitable causes. But if the Julius Rosenwald Fund had been accountable to voters, it would not have been able to finance the construction of 5,000 schools for African-American children in the Jim Crow South. The John M. Olin Foundation would not have been able to help create the Federalist Society. The Pew, Hewlett, and Packard foundations would not have been able to ring an early alarm on the dangers they see in climate change.

Independent private giving is absolutely fundamental for religious and intellectual liberty. It sustains our churches and synagogues, our colleges and universities, our museums and laboratories, our great think tanks of Left, Right, and Center, and enables them to make their own independent decisions.

This is why The Philanthropy Roundtable and our legislative arm the Alliance for Charitable Reform fight to protect philanthropic freedom—the freedom to decide how and where to give away one’s charitable assets.

We celebrate the pluralism of philanthropy, where donors with different world views, different passions, and different strategies channel their energy and resources into different organizations. We believe that voluntary giving is crucial in sustaining a culture of vigorous debate and exchange of ideas, where people with varying viewpoints have opportunities to act, and learn from each other. That kind of freedom of action is diversity at its best. The Roundtable is committed to protecting the giving that makes this diversity possible. 

Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable. This is adapted from his welcome remarks at the 2019 Annual Meeting.

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