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Charitable Giving and the Fabric of America

Karl Zinsmeister
The Philanthropy Roundtable


Karl ZinsmeisterKarl Zinsmeister is vice president for publications at the Philanthropy Roundtable. A graduate of Yale University, he also studied at Trinity College Dublin. For almost 13 years he was editor-in-chief of The American Enterprise, and from 2006 to 2009 he served as chief domestic policy advisor to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. He has written for several newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The Atlantic, and he is the author or co-author of eleven books, including The Almanac of American Philanthropy.



But philanthropy in the United States is not just a story—or even primarily a story—about wealthy people or big foundations. Only 14 percent of charitable giving in our country comes from foundations, and only five percent from corporations. The rest comes from individuals, and the bulk of it comes from small givers at an average rate of about $2,500 per household per year.

Anne Scheiber was a shy auditor who retired in 1944 with $5,000 in the bank. Through frugal living and inspired stock investment, she managed to turn this into $22 million by the time she died in 1995 at the age of 101. She left it to Yeshiva University so that bright but needy girls could attend college and medical school.

Elinor Sauerwein painted her own home, mowed her own lawn, and kept a vegetable garden in Modesto, California, until she was in her 90s. She avoided cable TV and almost never ate out. Her financial advisor reported that her goal was to amass as much wealth as she could for the Salvation Army—to which, when she died in 2011, she left $1.7 million.

Albert Lexie has shined shoes in Pittsburgh for over 40 years. He decided years ago to donate his tips to the Free Care Fund of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Since 1981, Lexie has donated over $200,000 to the fund, about a third of his total earnings.

Oseola McCarty of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, dropped out of school in sixth grade to support the woman who raised her, going to work as a washerwoman. She preferred using boiling pots, a scrub board, and 100 feet of open-air clothesline to an automatic washer and dryer, which she said didn’t meet her standards. When she retired in 1995, she had $280,000 in the bank. She set aside what she needed to live on and donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi, about two miles from where she lived, to fund scholarships for needy students to receive the education she never had. When news of her gift got out, citizens of Hattiesburg made donations that more than tripled her initial endowment. Today, several full tuition McCarty scholarships are awarded each year.

Many remarkable things have come about in America through the aggregation of dispersed giving. Historian Daniel Boorstin has noted that in 1880, the state of Ohio had only three million inhabitants but 37 colleges. That same year, England had 23 million inhabitants but only four colleges. The difference was small-scale philanthropy directed towards education. Western Reserve College, launched in 1826, was made possible by the giving of thousands of Ohioans, mostly frontier farmers. One supporter spent a whole winter hauling building supplies to the school from a quarry about ten miles away. Another family pledged a fraction of its egg and milk sales over a number of years. Of course you at Hillsdale College know this story well, sharing exactly the same sort of beginning.

There are activists today who argue that only money given to the poor should be counted as charitable. Is that a humane argument? It strikes me as astoundingly short-sighted. Most of the philanthropy that has resulted in a reduction of poverty over the years has nothing to do with alms. Consider donors who give to charter schools today. These charter schools are doing more to break the cycles of poverty and human failure than welfare transfers ever could.

Knowledge of our history is an essential element of American citizenship. Did you know that George Washington’s Mount Vernon was saved from ruin by thousands of small donors from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, under whose protection it continues to operate today? Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello has been protected for more than a century by a private foundation that receives no public funding. The same is true for Montpelier, the home of James Madison, and for the summer cottage where Abraham Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency and made some of his most momentous decisions—the latter was just restored by private donors and opened to the public in 2008.

America’s great cathedrals are also products of private giving. The building of Saint John the Divine was begun in New York City with a gift from J.P. Morgan, and was completed over a period of decades with the help of thousands of small donations. The National Cathedral in Washington, probably the last pure Gothic cathedral that will ever be constructed, was built with small donations over a period of 97 years.

Public libraries too. John Jacob Astor, James Lennox, and Samuel Tilden gave millions of dollars to create the New York Public Library. In Baltimore, Enoch Pratt provided both money and planning for a multi-branch public library. Andrew Carnegie created more than 2,500 libraries in towns and cities across the country.

Science in America is deeply entwined with philanthropy. Take the high-end telescopes that allow astronomers to make important discoveries about the universe. The Lick, Yerkes, Mount Wilson, Mount Palomar, and Keck telescopes were filled with light by private money, and the two massive telescopes being built today—the Magellan and Thirty-Meter telescopes—are relying on private donations as well. The Guggenheim family, which we associate with museums, created nearly all of the aeronautical engineering departments that initially propelled us into space, and was the sole funder of the career of Robert Goddard, the genius most responsible for American leadership in space flight.

John D. Rockefeller’s funding for medical research started around 1901. Forty-seven Nobel Prize winners in science received significant financial support from Rockefeller before they earned their awards, and another 14 were supported at some point by Rockefeller money. The breakthroughs by these men and women include advances in blood typing and genetic research, penicillin, the yellow fever vaccine, and kidney transplants. The John Hartford Foundation funded some of the earliest kidney transplants, created the professional societies where kidney experts share information, and made kidney dialysis practical for the first time.