I began writing this column on #GivingTuesday, a day that capitalizes on the giving spirit of the holidays to encourage us to support organizations we care about. U.S. nonprofits work in virtually every field to address perceived needs – helping the impoverished, protecting the environment, or supporting medical research, just to name a few causes. Our society's well-being depends on these organizations – some centuries old and some just founded. Therefore, as a society, we need private individuals to provide essential support through volunteering and monetary contributions.
The magnitude of our support is quite astounding. In its annual assessment of charitable giving in the U.S., USA Giving reported that in 2017, Americans donated more than $410 billion to charities. Buoyed by a strong stock market, this represented a record level of contributions. While some of this funding came from corporations and foundations, gifts from individuals made up the majority by far – $286.7 billion to be exact, plus another $35.7 billion in bequests, for a total of 79%. That is you and I; organizations rely on us to carry out the good work they do.
Where do we give our money? Religious institutions received $127 billion – by far the most – while education ranked second with $59 billion, followed by human services at $50 billion. The remainder went to foundations ($46 billion), health ($38 billion), public society benefit ($30 billion), international affairs ($23 billion, the only sector experiencing a decline), arts, culture and humanities ($20 billion), and the environment and animal-related causes ($12 billion).
My husband and I try to make philanthropy a priority. The bulk of our contributions go to schools, Holton and places we or our son attended. We contribute to our church and have supported a number of community organizations, such as the fire department, medical center, historical society, and conservation groups. Finally, we give to organizations engaged in work that reflect our interests and concerns.
Most of these institutions, including Holton, are very well resourced. So how, then, does my one donation really make a difference? Especially since, while I try to be generous, I certainly can't contribute what some people can. So, why do we give?
My primary motivation for giving is gratitude. I give to my high school because I loved my experience there and because it played such an important role in forming me into the person I became. I likewise received a fine education at both my undergraduate and graduate institutions, and both helped set me up for professional success. Landon and Hamilton College have played similar roles in our son's life and so deserve our support. Whether these organizations appear to be thriving financially or have significant need, I give because doing so constitutes the easiest way for me to express my gratitude. In addition, my sister and I went to the same high school, so I always give my annual fund gift in her memory, a small gesture that honors her life, a life characterized, by the way, by generosity.
I also know that, in fact, these institutions continue providing the outstanding educations they do because of charitable giving – because gifts of all sizes do make a difference. We've seen this recently when candidates running for office have inspired huge numbers of citizens to contribute often small sums that add up to millions, assembling sizable campaign funds in the process. While an individual gift did not amount to a significant financial contribution, each person's participation added to the total, collectively having a big impact. The organization Together Rising organizes "Love Flash Mobs," short-term fundraisers (usually just hours long) that cap donations at $25 each. They have addressed a range of vital needs around the world by relying on the aggregate impact of small donations. For example, in December 2016, they raised almost $1.2 million for Syrian refugees in Aleppo and throughout that war-ravaged country. The 16,208 donations allowed for the purchase of two ambulances and a mobile hospital, and funded a pediatric hospital. So we should never think our gifts don't matter. They do because it all adds up.
At the same time, it's also true, of course, that large gifts can prove to be game changers. Think of all the lives and paths that could change as a result of Michael Bloomberg's record-shattering gift to Johns Hopkins, earmarked for undergraduate financial aid; and through their foundation's funding, Bill and Melinda Gates have made huge strides in eliminating malaria in Africa. In both cases, as in other examples of philanthropy that makes noticeable long-term impact, the donors have focused their giving rather than spreading their largesse to greater number of causes. If we are in a position to make substantial sized gifts (in the thousands – few of us have the Gates' or Bloomberg's wealth), we should consider concentrating our philanthropy on a shortlist of organizations or causes.
Whatever your personal financial position and whatever your motivation may be, the main point is to give – and to teach our children to do the same. Our giving inspires those around us to give, and involving young people in conversations about giving can help them understand, early on, the power and importance of this act. A couple that made a major gift to Holton's capital campaign first consulted with their two daughters about what aspects of the school they would like to see the gift support. We can all have those kinds of conversations with our children about our giving, to Holton and to other organizations. We can also have our children make contributions themselves. This Feb. 14 as we celebrate Holton's birthday, all Upper School students will have an opportunity to make participatory $1 gifts to the Holton Fund as part of the school's first-ever give day. I hope you'll encourage your daughters to join in this day of giving back, and that you will use it as another opportunity to talk about charitable giving to support causes and institutions you believe in – and that believe in you. In the meantime, please accept my warmest wishes for a generous holiday season.