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Entering Golden Era Of Giving

New Rich

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1998


America is on the verge of a golden era of giving, an almost certain cascade of charity and philanthropy that will distinguish the start of the 21st century in ways comparable to the giant footprints left by the legendary givers of the early 1900s, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

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Yet the giving is being done in some radically different ways, the byproduct of growing dissatisfaction with traditional institutions and the vastly different style and personality of a newly wealthy class of Americans.

Today's world of giving, for instance, includes younger philanthropists, more women, and more who want hands-on involvement instead of just check-writing.

"The standard, old-line philanthropic stuff of just giving money to the local orchestra isn't appealing. The attitude now is, 'I created this wealth and I want to do more than just give it away,' " says Jeff Swartz, a young philanthropist involved in youth programs and chief executive of the Timberland apparel firm in New Hampshire.

"Philanthropy today is activism, not sitting on the sidelines," agrees Catherine Gund. Though she's on the board of her wealthy family's foundation, she has established her own so she can be more directly involved. Ms. Gund's new Third Wave Foundation in New York helps young women with issues ranging from health care to education.

American philanthropy is not just getting younger. Some dominant, old-time philanthropic foundations are slowly reinventing themselves, often incorporating a more entrepreneurial spirit. And there's been an explosion of so-called community foundations, which pool money from a variety of donors, give them more say in how it is spent, and concentrate their works on the community in which they exist.

Driving all this is perhaps the most important change of all: a need for ever-greater philanthropic generosity because of slackening government involvement in a range of social issues.

Baby boomers and their offspring are often chided as self-absorbed and disconnected from civic involvement. Declines in everything from voting to participation in PTA meetings reinforce that image. But a range of experts in philanthropy see countervailing signs.

"Something important is happening, based on the sheer size of the transfer of wealth that's coming to the baby-boom generation and their willingness to do something with it," says John Gardner, former Cabinet member under President Johnson, past president of the Carnegie Corp., and minence grise of the modern philanthropy world.

By some estimates, $10 trillion will be transferred from one generation to the next over the coming 30 years. That mind-boggling amount is coupled with an unprecedented bounty of new wealth recently generated by the US economy. Together, they almost predetermine strong expansion in the volume of philanthropic giving into the next century.

But it's not just the dollars. Experts sense a mood swing that is making the me-generations eager to engage in social work through giving time and money.

Peter Karoff's company, The Philanthropic Initiative in Boston, seeks to match givers with those needing help. He predicts a coming "philanthropic big bang" as Americans become "seekers of meaning in their lives, seeking to redefine their values, their spirituality."

For decades, Americans have given the equivalent of about 2 percent of the gross domestic product to philanthropy. That level of giving is envied worldwide.