PEOPLE THINK WE Americans are generous because we are rich. I contend we are rich because we are generous. Voluntary giving in this country guarantees--and always has guaranteed--economic growth. The widely shared impulse to give sustains upward mobility and advances mutuality in our democracy. Conventional wisdom sees philanthropy merely as charity. Actually, American generosity is investment in people, facilities, and ideas--for the benefit of the greater good. Since 1647, philanthropy has been the insurance we take out on the Republic. Neither those who mistrust philanthropy nor extol it as a panacea understand its real function--and history--in our capital- and market-driven society.
Some 89% of Americans gave in 2003. That is a higher percentage of the population than voted, watched the Super Bowl, or (most surprisingly, given our girth) ate in a fast food restaurant. We give at all income levels and across all races, ethnicities, and education levels. We gave $241,000,000,000--or two percent of our gross domestic product. The nation that ranks next is Great Britain; the British give .7% of their GDE Perhaps most astonishing, 75% of the U.S. total came directly from individuals, not corporations. Thirty-eight percent of that went to our religious affiliations. We invested the rest in creating improvements in our society.
Voluntary contributions advance economic growth by providing a third pot of resources to address problems and create opportunities when government money and corporate investment are not available. These funds have injected an extra dimension of energy and innovation into our economy that the rest of the world's nations have not had access to.
For example, philanthropy supported the development of radar, aviation, and rocketry. Moreover, when the Scottish physician Alexander Fleming discovered that a mold seemed to kill bacteria, he needed money to develop and refine the first dose of penicillin that patients could take safely. Neither his government nor private industry would give him the necessary funds. He discovered, however, that in the U.S. there was a third source of funds--people who would provide money for high-risk but potentially beneficial ideas even when all else failed. Better still, the donors would not ask any return for themselves. Fleming showed up at the door of the John D. Rockefeller III. He received funding and the rest is history.
The same story could be told about the young German scientists who...