DO YOU give money to charity? You do if you’re a typical American. More than 70 percent of US families contribute every year, and the average household gives at least $1,000. Charitable donations in America add up to about $300 billion annually — which is more, as Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute points out, than the entire gross national product of Finland, Portugal, or Peru. Americans give 12 times as much to charity each year as they spend on professional sports, and almost 30 times as much as they spend going to the movies. By any yardstick, America is one of the most generous nations on earth.
And who, in the annals of this greatly philanthropic country, have been the greatest philanthropists?
The Philanthropy Roundtable, a 25-year-old network of charitable donors that promotes innovative and effective giving, takes up that question in a remarkable and inspiring new project: The Philanthropy Hall of Fame. The online gallery, at GreatPhilanthropists.org, recounts the achievements of 54 American men and women who “changed the nation and the world through their charitable giving.” The philanthropists are profiled in absorbing biographical sketches that give a sense of their character and upbringing, and describe the “tactics and results of their philanthropy.” Excerpts of the profiles were also published in a recent issue of Philanthropy, the Roundtable’s quarterly magazine.
Greatness in philanthropy isn’t easy to define. In compiling the inaugural class of charitable hall of famers, the Roundtable’s editors wrestled with judgment calls. How do you measure a philanthropist’s effectiveness, for example? Is it a function of “the number of individuals served, or the degree of innovation achieved, or the years of lasting influence?” But this much is clear: The donors chosen to inaugurate the Philanthropy Hall of Fame reflect the Roundtable’s conviction that excellence can take many forms.
It’s an extraordinary assemblage. Some of the philanthropists are among the most famous Americans in history. Everyone has heard of Benjamin Franklin, but how many of us know that in addition to being a renowned diplomat, scientist, printer, and intellectual, he was also one of the most significant givers of his day? He was a charitable dynamo, responsible for the creation of the first public library in North America, the first volunteer fire brigade in Pennsylvania, the academy that later became the University of Pennsylvania, and the nation’s first hospital. One of his last gifts, a bequest of 1,000 pounds sterling to the city he was born in, lives on to this day as the Franklin Institute of Boston.
Not nearly as renowned is Nicholas Longworth, who grew up poor, earned a fortune in real estate and winemaking, then gave away most of his riches to what he called “the devil’s poor.” These, one historian explained, were “vagabonds, drunkards, fallen women, those who had gone far into the depths of misery and wretchedness, and from whom respectable people shrank in disgust.” He distributed bread for free to anyone who asked, giving away hundreds of loaves weekly. He housed destitute families in a four-story boarding house that he built over his winery. When he died in 1863, his biographical profile notes, Longworth’s funeral was attended by “thousands of outcasts — drunkards and prostitutes, beggars and criminals — sobbing at the loss of this, their one true friend.”
Not all of the givers highlighted in the Hall of Fame were wealthy. Oseola McCarty was a lifelong laundress, a black woman reared in Jim Crow Mississippi, who washed other people’s clothes by hand until arthritis forced her to stop working at 87. She never went to high school, never drove a car. Yet like many philanthropists of immensely greater means, she was a religious believer whose faith inspired her to help others, and a scrupulous saver who unfailingly set aside a few cents from every dollar she earned. In 1995, soon after retiring, McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for poor but deserving students. Her munificence triggered an outpouring of praise — and of giving by others. CNN founder Ted Turner pledged $1 billion to the United Nations Foundation. “If that little woman can give away everything she has,” he said, “then I can give a billion.”
It is no exaggeration to suggest that charitable giving may be our nation’s most quintessential character trait. Franklin, Longworth, and McCarty, like so many others in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame, had virtually nothing in common. Except, that is, for the astonishing generosity that from the very outset has been such a hallmark of American life.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.