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.

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