Monday, July 28, 2008

Why We Give

"The raising of extraordinarily large sums of money, given voluntarily and freely by millions of our fellow Americans, is a unique American tradition," said John F. Kennedy. The facts support his claim. But why is this so?

The answers can be found in our early history. First of all, we were blessed with the abundance of nature. By the mid-eighteenth century, the average American colonist enjoyed the highest standard of living in the western world. As David McCullough notes in his wonderful book, "1776," British soldiers deployed to the colonies were astonished to find fields bursting with crops, woods rustling with wildlife, orchards teeming with fruit and rivers and lakes with a profusion of fish. They were also more than a little irked that such a fortunate people could be so ungrateful to king and country. Yet, American colonists were grateful, deeply so, but not to their king. The object of their gratitude was God.

They directly related their material abundance to God's grace. Wealth was a proof of godliness (the very opposite of what many other cultures would assume). Is it any wonder, then, that Americans, even today, are open even boastful about their prosperity or why we, perhaps more than any other society, so closely equate success with financial attainment? But how much credit and glory could we take unto ourselves if it was God-given? Why had God shed his grace on us? What was expected of us in return? Somewhere out of these reflections, we evolved a societal expectation of "giving back." It's an interesting phrase and concept because we don't really give back to God; we can only extend the example by giving to others.

This early sense of obligation dovetailed with another evolving social construct, one that was firmly in place well before the framers of the Constitution articulated it as "we the people." New people in a new land learned to rely on each other to raise barns, harvest crops, build schools, put out fires and provide for the common defense. If we wanted civic improvements or a better way of life in our communities, we had no one to look to but "we the people." It was not only an assertion of democratic ideals but an acceptance of a practical reality. If not us, who? If not now, when? When de Tocqueville arrived in the early 19th century, he marveled at our ability to affiliate and associate in pursuit of community improvements or a greater social good. By then, the culture of "we the people" was set. This, then, is the ABC triangle of American philanthropy (A=abundance, B=belief, C=compact).

By the end of the 18th century, we see Americans not just passing their estates to heirs but leaving bequests to benefit strangers. The impulse of aristocracies has been, and will always be, to keep wealth within to perpetuate the power of the family. In America, a new impulse emerged to give to those outside of our families to expand opportunity and thereby revitalize and extend the franchise of democracy. The American Philanthropic Revolution was well underway.

This is the power of culture. Certainly not all philanthropists today give for the same reasons as our ancestors. They may not even be aware of the roots of American philanthropy, but they are a part of culture that frequently espouses, and sets a magnificent example for, "giving back." Our ancestors shape our behavior whether we realize it or not.

In subsequent posts, we will discuss how to keep this revolution alive, as philanthropists and philanthropic organizations. We cannot afford to take this cultural phenomenon for granted or take selfish advantage of an underlying good that has made it possible to achieve so much for so many for so long.

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