Foundations support new effort to ignite American generosity

In a new effort backed by more than $ 2 million in grants from the nation’s largest foundations, a group of philanthropy leaders on Tuesday announced the public launch of a campaign to increase donations of time and money, especially from middle and low income Americans. Noting that financial giving has fallen to an all-time high – only 50% of people donate – and that anger over billionaires and income inequality is growing, the organizers of the effort said it was crucial to ” rekindle generosity – and involve every American in the process. “

In a document outlining the commission’s work, organizers said they feared that at a time of growing division in the United States, one of the key connectivity indicators crucial to a functioning democracy – support for efforts at nonprofit – faces an “uncertain” future. The panel, which calls itself the Generosity Commission, is committed to examining both how philanthropy supports democracy – and how it has the potential to undermine it.

“Middle-class households are giving up their giving,” said Jane Wales, vice president for philanthropy and society at the Aspen Institute and chair of the commission. “It is really worrying for the health of a democracy.”

The 17-member commission includes representatives from major funders, including the Gates, MacArthur and Skoll foundations, as well as charitable leaders from groups such as The Salvation Army and Points of Light.

Wales said the members were chosen to include a variety of types of philanthropic organizations at different stages of their development, in different parts of the country and across the political spectrum.

The Generosity Commission has budgeted a total of approximately $ 3.8 million for its work and is actively raising funds. He has received grants from some of the organizations that employ commission members. Grants came from the Gates, Kaufman, Mott, Sage and Templeton foundations, the Lilly Endowment, Fidelity Charitable, fundraising software company Blackbaud and others.

The commission said it plans to “build broad national momentum and bipartisan support in Congress for positive change to reinvent generosity across America.”

Many philanthropic experts, including Aisha Alexander-Young, president of Give Blck, a nonprofit that works to increase donations to organizations founded by blacks, have praised the commission’s work.

Philanthropy has a reputation problem because it has been “abused” as a tax shelter by too many wealthy donors, said Alexander-Young, who was previously vice president of strategy and equity at the Meyer Foundation .

“With great philanthropy and some nonprofits, there is a lag,” especially among young donors. “The younger generations want to be able to build a community and not feel like a donor or volunteering is something that gives you exclusivity or status, but gives you the opportunity to engage with your neighbors and your community. community. “

For many years, association leaders have worried about a decline in the share of Americans giving, which appears to have accelerated in the wake of the Great Recession.

Historically, about two-thirds of households have made philanthropic donations; by 2018, that number had fallen to less than half, representing tens of millions of families who had stopped giving to charity since 2000, according to a study by Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy.

The declines were particularly marked among middle- and low-income donors, as contributions from the rich contributed to the overall increase in giving.

The current concentration of giving among the ultra-rich and the decline in volunteering are cause for concern, Wales said, as they suggest that many people believe their contributions would make no difference. Falling donations can also be a symptom of a disengaged and battered electorate.

But Wales says she is encouraged by the informal efforts that sprouted during the pandemic, such as local voluntary efforts to provide groceries and other basic items to those in need.

The commission is “an opportunity to show how the spontaneous actions of citizens suggest a trend in the other direction and possibilities to get out of the polarization and dysfunction we find ourselves in,” said Wales. “These people feel engaged. And that may be more meaningful over time than sending a check to a faraway organization.

Michael Hartmann, senior researcher at the Capitol Research Center, a conservative research group, hopes the panel takes a broad look at the work of nonprofits.

The criticisms faced by donors are handled by conservative and liberal populists, who view endowments and the use of donor-advised funds with suspicion, Hartmann said. He notably noted the candidacy of JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy”, for the US Senate. Vance, a Republican from Ohio, called the Ford Foundation a state-sponsored “cancer of society.” Vance said in an interview with Fox News that Ford advocates a “radical left ideology,” such as teaching critical race theory.

Hartmann said critics of philanthropy are sure to continue, as Republicans have a good chance of reclaiming the United States House after next year’s midterm election. Republicans will be in charge of Congress, either half or all next time, ”Hartmann predicted. “It’s a safe bet that there could be hearings or inquiries. Populist conservative attacks on philanthropy are not going to go away. “

In addition to conducting research, the commission will endeavor to obtain public comments.

The commission has not designed how it will work. It will start with the use of focus groups, surveys and social media campaigns to engage the general public to influence donations. Subsequently, the commission may seek large-scale efforts to publicize its work, such as advertising at major sporting events or on popular television shows.

“We want to capture and celebrate the ways in which the giving. volunteering and civic engagement are being rethought before our eyes, ”said Suzy Antounian, director of the commission. “And our feeling is that research alone will not get us there. “

Philanthropy has been an essential part of the American experience since Native Americans provided settlers to settlers, said Jackie Bouvier Copeland, founder of Black Philanthropy Month. But for too long, she said, informal donations have been made “under the nose” of the philanthropic establishment.

“We need institutional philanthropy to respect the creativity and energy around caring and caring that is emerging across the United States from all demographic groups and not treating it as some kind of diluted or inferior form. of philanthropy, ”she said.

She hoped the committee would give serious consideration to the benefits offered by informal donors. But more importantly, she said, philanthropy will continue to lose the trust of the general public if the commission does not act on its national conversation.

If no action is taken, she said, the commission’s work will be seen as just a public relations campaign to elevate the position of philanthropy and wealthy donors in the minds of the American public, with nothing do to direct more money to help society.

Bouvier Copeland said: “This commission will do more harm than good if it listens and does nothing.”


This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at The Chronicle. Email: [email protected] The AP and The Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropic coverage, visit