Nearly a month has passed since the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco teamed up to grant 5-year-old leukemia patient, Miles Scott, his dream of being Batman for a day, and the story still continues to amaze me. The kind of collective effort that it took to realize the events of the day was astounding: the special edition cover of the San Francisco Chronicle authored by “Clark Kent”, the involvement of the police chief and mayor, the U.S. Attorney’s office issuing a press release announcing the arrest of the Penguin and the Riddler, the live tweets from thousands of people in the crowds, the volunteer actors, photographers, videographers, make-up artists, etc. The list goes on. It was certainly the feel-good story of the year.
It is this kind of outpouring of support that has historically characterized American charity. Granted that the #SFBatKid event was an outlier when compared alongside traditional charity, the spirit of giving and helping people in need still remains a large part of the American psyche. It is important to note that charity isn’t the private domain of the top 10%. The most generous Americans (as a proportion of their income) are the working poor. Adam Meyerson, President of the Philanthropy Roundtable, pointed out in his 2010 speech at Hillsdale College that Americans routinely give around $6 billion every week. According to Meyerson, charities racked up $300 billion in 2009, which he noted was three times more than what Americans spent on gambling, and ten times more what they spent on professional sports.
Of course, the largest reflections of American charity occur immediately after natural disasters. Recent examples include Hurricane Katrina ($6 billion), the Haiti earthquake ($1.4 billion), and South Asian tsunami ($1.6 billion). Private philanthropy is also responsible for $30 billion to colleges across our nation every year. But it is not just natural disaster aid and education that Americans donate towards. Meyerson notes “museums, orchestras, hospitals, clinics, churches and synagogues, refuges for animals, habitat preservation, youth programs, and grass-roots protectors of the need and homeless” are all aspects of the infrastructure created by American giving.
Recently, I read a Thought Catalog article entitled “16 people on things they couldn’t believe about America until they moved here”. Some of the responses were somewhat critical of American behavior and trends, but there were many positive responses as well. Here were some of my favorites:
- A lot of couples adopt children, sometimes despite having their own, and treat them exactly like their own. (To me, this alone is a marker of a great people) – Rakib Islam
- Philanthropy. There is no culture of philanthropy in Russia and many view American philanthropy either as a waste of money or as some intricate plot to get some additional benefits. – Natalia Rekhter
- The U.S. preserves its nature. I was thrilled to see how far ahead America is in preserving its beautiful nature. Absolutely terrific, kudos to you guys. – John Levingster
People from different cultures have observed this general philanthropy that Americans seem to possess. Why are Americans like this? Meyerson offers 3 reasons.
“First, we are the most religious people of any leading modern economy. The single most determinant factor of charitable giving is active religious faith and observance. Americans who attend church or synagogue or another form of worship once a week give three times as much to charity as a percentage of their income as those who rarely attend religious services. One third of all charitable giving in America goes to religion. Whether we are Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, or some other faith, we Americans have the freedom to support our own religious institutions, and this philanthropic freedom has been intimately linked to our religious liberty. But the giving by regular religious worshippers is not limited to their own churches. They also give more to secular charities than do those who never or rarely attend religious services.”
America’s adherence to religion in many forms was also noted by some people in the Thought Catalog article as well. The second reason Meyerson offers of why Americans are so charitable is because “we respect the freedom and ability of individuals, and associations of individuals, to make a difference. Americans don’t wait for the government, or the local nobleman to solve our problems; we find solutions ourselves.” Meyerson offers an example of a six-year old boy named Zach Bonner, who in 2004 after Hurricane Charley, pulled his little red wagon door-to-door for 4 months and collected 27 truckloads of supplies for families who had been left homeless in Charley’s aftermath.
The last reason Meyerson offers is an important one. “Philanthropy is 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 Andrew Carnegie, who brought public libraries to communities across America, to Bill Gates, who is seeking to eradicate malaria, 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 and the passion to innovate and to build institutions, and the analytical skills to assess what works.”
The last reason is the primary why I don’t own any Apple products. For all their billions in profit, their charitable donations under Steve Jobs barely surpassed a meager $50 million. Meanwhile, companies like Walmart are contributing over $300 million to charities across the nation.
Meyerson ended his speech with this statement: “Each of us should think about how we can make a difference with our own charitable contributions, following the examples of Zach Bonner with his little red wagon…”. Entering into the holiday season, it would be great if we could spend a little bit of our time and money to help those in need, just like thousands of people in the city of San Francisco showed us a month ago.