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Independence Day is a day to celebrate our freedom, specifically the freedom to govern ourselves. The Fourth of July is also the National Day of the United States, and a fitting time to reflect on our many traditions.
One of the most important of these traditions is embracing the spirit that good fortune is for sharing in the form of time, talent and treasure. The 2016 release of Givifng USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy estimates that the total of charitable contributions from individuals, estates, corporations and foundations was $373.25 billion in 2015, a 4.1% increase in current dollars over the prior year and 4% in inflation-adjusted dollars. This sets a record for the second year in a row. Think of it this way: Americans are donating to charity at a rate of more than $1 billion a day.
No developed country approaches America in giving. The Almanac of American Philanthropy ranks 14 leading industrial countries by the amount of charity their citizens give yearly, calculated as a percentage of GDP. Americans are by far the most charitable — roughly twice as generous as Canadians, Spaniards, and the Irish, for instance, and more than 20 times as apt to give as Germans and Italians.
One of the most uplifting dimensions of American philanthropy is that it is not restricted to the wealthiest among us. People from all different backgrounds and all walks of life choose to make a difference as donors.
About two-thirds of American households contribute to at least one charity, giving, on average, about $2,600 a year. This cuts across socioeconomic lines. In fact, lower income citizens give a greater percentage of their earnings than higher income individuals do.
The ethic of sharing can be traced back to the time of French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who in 1835 wrote Democracy in America, observing the power of community involvement, engagement and bonds. That practical habit of lending a helping hand continues today. At some time all of us will be in need. We all face economic, physical or mental hardship. We won’t make it without the help and support of others.
Another key motivation to give is the satisfaction we get from it. After enjoying good fortune, many people choose to share it with the schools, medical facilities, human service agencies and other organizations that have helped them and family members along the way.
Philanthropy is more than a zero sum game in which the donor has to lose something for the recipient to gain something of like value. Donors also clearly come out ahead. The act of making a gift helps them realize more of their human potential and become better people.
When you’ve been in the fundraising business long enough, you recognize the “high” donors get from making a gift. It’s an uplifting feeling, evidenced by the smiles on their faces and their eagerness to hear about the impact of their gifts.
Remember, giving means the sharing of both time and money, and the two typically go hand-in-hand. So those who donate both time and money derive more benefits than those who just give one or the other.
Ben Franklin is best known for his work on the Declaration of Independence and helping to form our republic. Many people, however, might not know about his huge philanthropic presence. His contributions improved virtually every part of Philadelphia’s quality of life, especially libraries and hospitals. His selfless style of philanthropy set a wonderful example, and he preferred to give without fanfare. He figured out philanthropy long before it became popular.
In 1743, Franklin wrote that he “always set a greater value on the character of a doer of good, than on any other kind of reputation.”
Philanthropy illuminates the soul of America, giving is an admirable part of our culture. It’s something to be proud of, celebrated, and passed along from one generation to the next. It’s at the very foundation of what makes our nation strong and, time after time, able to rise up and overcome adversity.
Top image: A local Girl Scout troop holds the American Flag while staging for the Battle of the Flowers Parade in 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.