Sunday, December 6, 2009

Family and Faith: The Heart of American Philanthropy

In my lectures, seminars and writings, I often speak to the spiritual roots of American philanthropy and stress how important it is for philanthropy-seeking organizations to understand, respect, align with and further develop this profoundly important aspect of our culture.

In an article in The Global Spiral, Stephen G. Post underscores the singularity and cultural centrality of American philanthropy in asserting, "The most significant history of America is the story of how those committed to freedom and to the public good have used wealth to found and maintain institutions of education, health, culture, spirituality, and humanitarian aspiration. It is also a story about millions of people devoting time and energy in small ways to good causes. Our American histories are usually shaped by themes such as politics, culture, expansion, war, and the economy. We need to recognize that the history of this nation is at least as much one of philanthropy as of anything else, and that only through the spirit of philanthropy is there any ultimate hope for a prosperous, pluralistic, democratic future. Government has a vitally important role in responding to the needs of citizens, especially of those in dire need. But we also need philanthropy."

In the same article, he points to family history and religion as wellsprings of American philanthropy. "If we do live in an age of narcissism, the remarkable thing is that so many individuals and families act philanthropically," he says. "The traditions of philanthropic families seem strong enough to sustain the spirit of giving, and, if today's events are a measure, to help other families enter into this spirit. As one scholar who has studied philanthropic motives in depth through interview analysis concludes: "Most of the wealthy people we interviewed also cited family tradition as a reason to give to charity. For some, the family had a history of responding to the needs of communities where they had been 'leading families.'" Next to family history, spirituality and religion are often mentioned, and these features are usually a core aspect of family history. And, importantly, people want to pass this spiritual tradition of generosity on to their children. Some parents engage their children in volunteer work in adolescence, teach them by modeling a life of service: some involve their children actively in the life of the family foundation, including site visits and responsibility for some small grants."

The market research we have conducted through Georgetown's Advancement office shows that the majority of our most generous and loyal donors identify themselves by their faith and have had multiple family members attend the university. The correlation of spirituality to philanthropy is powerful according to Arthur C. Brooks, who, in a Policy Review article, entitled "Religious Faith and Charitable Giving," writes, "Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions."

So, given the strength of this evidence, I continue to challenge those philanthropy-seeking organizations who resort to soul-less, short-term, and metrically reductive approaches to fund raising. I believe that donors give despite, not because of, these approaches. These organizations would be better served, and would better serve the American philanthropic phenomenon, by giving more time and attention to designing goals and activities that would tap into and satisfy our deepest spiritual aspirations and by asking what they might do to not only raise more gifts in the next year but to earn the support of families over many generations.

No comments: