Fantom: I despise a narrow field. O for the reign of universal benevolence. I want to make all mankind good and happy.
Goodman: Dear me! Sure that must be a wholesale sort of a job. Had you not better try your hand at a town or neighborhood first?
Fantom: Sir, I have a plan in my head for relieving the miseries of the whole world…. I would alter all the laws, and put an end to all the wars…. This is what I call doing things on a grand scale….
Goodman: One must begin to love somewhere; and I think it is as natural to love one’s own family, and to do good in one’s own neighborhood…. If every man in every family, village, and county did the same, why then all the schemes would be met, and the end of one village or town where I was doing good would be the beginning of another village where somebody else was doing good….
Fantom: Sir, a man of large views will be on the watch for great occasions to prove his benevolence.
Goodman: Yes, sir; but if they are so distant that he cannot reach them, or so vast that he cannot grasp them, he may let a thousand little, snug, kind, good actions slip through his fingers in the meanwhile. And so between the great thing that he cannot do and the little ones that he will not do, life passes, and nothing will be done.
— McGuffey’s Reader, 1844
“When I became serious about philanthropy, it was easiest to determine the needs in my own community. When you start working in your own community, there are a lot of positives. You’ve already got relationships. The programs you support are accessible and visible. You can go see them, talk with them, get a feel for them. And you get lots of affirmation. There are many reasons why people give locally.”
— David Weekley, Philanthropy, Winter 2009
As a simple matter of fact, more donors agree with the rhetorical Mr. Goodman and the very real Mr. Weekley (winner of the the 2015 William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership) than with the more abstract and grandiose Mr. Fantom. A study out of Indiana University’s Lilly philanthropy school showed that of all gifts of a million dollars or more made during the years 2000-2011, two thirds went to organizations in the same region as the giver. If you add in all the gifts of less than a million dollars, the proportion of American philanthropy that takes place locally is overwhelming.
In addition, a great many of the most effective national charities in America—Goodwill, the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, the Union Gospel Missions, the Red Cross, and many more—provide their local chapters with a powerful degree of operational autonomy. When donors give to these groups built on decentralized chapters, they are often supporting a local group more than a national organization.
By definition, most local, small-scale giving is not visible to outsiders, so it’s easy to miss. The cases we present below are merely examples—a kind of tip of the U.S. iceberg. Our intent is simply to remind everyone interested in philanthropy that each day in this country, scads of close-to-home acts of giving take place. It’s easy to think that these local philanthropies are too small, too uncoordinated, too limited to generate “fundamental change.” But piece together a scholarship program here and an inspiring museum there, a rural dental program in this town and an “Alice’s Integrity Loan Fund” in another, and soon you see the outlines of a living, thousand-armed mechanism that responds to millions of local needs and longings, marshaling tens of billions of dollars. And every one of our home towns is made more livable, richer, safer, and more interesting by the gifts rained down by this organic process of sharing bounty among neighbors.
— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister and Brian Brown, Caitrin Keiper, Bill Kauffman