America's thousand points of light

Donations hit a record last year, a sign of America's strength in meeting human needs.

This Fourth of July, Americans might want to celebrate something more than the nation's contributions to freedom and democracy: The US remains a beacon of private giving, with a record set last year in donations to charitable causes.

As usual, three-quarters of the money came from individuals, the rest from institutions. In a ranking with other countries, the US remains first in philanthropy as a percent of its economy – 1.7 percent – far ahead of runner-up Britain with 0.73 percent, or France's 0.14 percent.

Americans gave away nearly $300 billion in 2006, surpassing even the unusually high giving of 2005 that was triggered by such disasters as the Gulf hurricanes and the Asian tsunami. Donations in the US rose an inflation-adjusted 1 percent, according to a report released yesterday by the Giving USA Foundation. If disaster relief is excluded, the increase was 3.2 percent.

Such generosity reflects two key parts of American values: hope for the future of society and a hope that each individual can rise out of trouble and woe to make a better life. Much of the rebuilding of New Orleans, for instance, has been led by individuals, aid groups, and foundations, while government is still getting its act together.

Even though last year's increase was boosted in part by a $1.9 billion donation from multibillionaire Warren Buffet, Americans across all income levels still give. The working poor give as much as the rich as a percent of income. For households earning below $100,000, about two-thirds give to charities.

American magnanimity isn't universal in other regards. Only 7 in 10 households give money to nonprofit groups. Those who attend a house of worship give more money and do so more often than those who don't. (In fact, about one-third of all giving goes toward religious causes.) And those who don't think it is government's role to redistribute wealth are four times more likely to donate than those who do want higher taxes for social spending.

The types of giving fluctuate, too, which may be a strength as donations flow with flexibility according to shifting perceptions of needs. Last year, for instance, about a third of charities reported a decline in donations. Groups involved with the environment, animals, and healthcare saw a drop, too. But institutions involved in the arts, culture, and education had a more than 6 percent increase.

The targets of giving often change because, as John D. Rockefeller said in the 19th century, philanthropy "is constantly in search for finalities – a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source." But thousands of private groups in the US are trying to solve society's problems with a broad range of approaches and ideas. The newest type of giving comes from rich, high-tech entrepreneurs. They apply their industry's standard of "results orientation" to their charitable projects, hoping to find a model of success for solving human ills.

But the best model for giving remains those groups that "take seriously the immediate concerns of those before them and focus on them, in the name of human dignity and democratic responsiveness," according to William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

This Fourth, it is that shining light of American democracy that deserves a few fireworks.

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