Generosity defines America

Americans are the most generous people on Earth. Eighty-nine percent of us make a charitable donation each year. Generosity is our most widely shared value, committed by the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy and across all races and ethnicities.

Americans give to causes that compel our attention regardless of our personal connections. Of course, we give to support causes that we are personally connected to: religious communities, schools, and to problems or diseases that we have confronted. But we also give to those we share nothing with.

In most modern nations, citizens expect the government to attend to the needs of the citizenry. Taxes flow to the government and are redistributed to the people through a centralized bureaucracy. In the American model, support of good causes is decentralized, unmanaged and pluralistic.

Our tradition of citizen-to-citizen generosity — what I call “generosity unbound” — comes from a long-standing connection between personal prosperity and the common good. To see how these connections were built, it helps to look to individuals who put these values into action.

Catherine Ferguson (c. 1774-1854), born a slave, let her generosity lead her to start the nation’s first Sunday school. Anti-slavery church friends helped her earn her freedom as a young woman in New York in 1788.

In gratitude, she immediately began earning extra money baking wedding cakes so she could open a school in her front room. She bought books and taught black and white children from the poorest circumstances to read.

The school was open on the only day of the week these full-time working children aged 6 and up were available, the Sabbath. Catherine’s generosity lifted up hundreds of children from poverty to possibility.

George Peabody (1795-1869) established the country’s earliest philanthropic institution and set a standard that inspired future generations. George grew up in a Massachusetts household of 11 children with strong Puritan ties. His father earned so little, George left school early to support his family.

By 1843, Peabody had opened a London financial firm that financed capital-intensive projects: the first transatlantic cable and the canals and railroads that enabled America’s westward expansion. Peabody recognized how investments made progress possible.

Peabody’s largest philanthropic investment was the Peabody Education Fund. In the 1867 founding letter, Peabody wrote that “the moral and intellectual development [of the United States] should keep pace with her material growth. … [T]he impoverished people of the South cannot, without aid, advance themselves in knowledge and power.”

No one could have anticipated the power of this precedent-setting gift. It educated thousands and inspired others. John Slater, a Connecticut textile magnate, donated $1 million to advance the “uplifting of the lately emancipated population of the Southern States” in 1882.

Anna T. Jeanes, a Philadelphia Quaker, deeded $1 million to the education of Southern black children in 1905. Modeled after the great work of Virginia Cabell Randolph, a black teacher in the Richmond area, Jeanes Fund teachers visited students’ homes addressing health and sanitation conditions, as well as education.

Ferguson, Peabody, Slater and Jeanes define values that have become emblematic of Americans. Some give locally. Some create foundations. Most believe in hard work and the sharing of personal well-being. Most seek a public benefit from their prosperity, rather than a purely private benefit. Most invested in others so that the future would be better for everyone.

Thanks to generous entrepreneurs, prosperity and philanthropy are more closely linked in the U.S. than they are in any other nation. Philanthropy is still the unique feature of American culture.

But will investment philanthropy continue in America? On Tuesday, we will begin to answer this question.

Excerpted from “Generosity Unbound: How American Philanthropy can Strengthen the Economy and Expand the Middle Class.” Claire Guadiani is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the author of four books on philanthropy.

Op Edsop-edOpinionSan Francisco

Just Posted

A man walks past the main entrance to the Hotel Whitcomb at Eighth and Market streets on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Closing hotels could disconnect hundreds from critical health care services

‘That baseline of humanity and dignity goes a long way’

Dreamforce returned to San Francisco in person this week – but with a tiny sliver of past attendance. (Courtesy Salesforce)
Dreamforce returns with hundreds on hand, down from 170,000 in the past

High hopes for a larger Salesforce conference shriveled during the summer

The remnants of trees burned by the Dixie Fire near Antelope Lake, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/The New York Times)
California’s wildfires invisible effect: high carbon dioxide emissions

This summer California fires emitted twice as much CO2 as last year

The numbers show nearly 14 percent of San Francisco voters who participated in the Sept. 14 recall election wanted to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom from elected office. (Shutterstock photo)
(Shutterstock photo)
How San Francisco neighborhoods voted in the Newsom recall

Sunset tops the list as the area with the most ‘yes’ votes

Alison Collins says that she and other members of San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education facing potential recall “represent constituents that are often erased or talked over.” <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>
Alison Collins speaks: Embattled SF school board member confronts the recall effort

‘It’s important for folks to know what this recall is about. It’s bigger than any one of us.’

Most Read