During the holidays, our thoughts naturally turn to giving – not just giving gifts, but donating our time and money to charities, disasters and community programs.
We’re reminded that, with all our frailties, we, Americans, are a pretty generous lot. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 88 percent of our households donate to charity. In 2015, our total was more than $375 billion in cash to non-profit organizations.
Cash contributions are only part of the story. Many businesses and those they employ have jumped in with donated services and products that are not included in the Center’s calculations. In many ways, that generosity and willingness to help people in need is what defines America.
As it turns out, philanthropy is as old as civilization itself.
One of the early recorded donations was in 375 B.C. when Plato willed his house to his nephew with instructions that the proceeds be used to support students and faculty at the academy he founded.
In America, the controversial and hard-charging industry titans who came to power in the 19th century began a tradition of philanthropy that created some of our nation’s most prestigious institutions.
For example, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie built 2,800 free public libraries around the world, and many of America’s greatest universities and art institutions were founded by industrialists: Carnegie-Mellon University, Duke University, the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, Stanford University, the Getty Museum, the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian.
While banks are a target of much criticism, it is important to point out that in 2015, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America were among Forbes top 20 contributors, donating more than $677 million nationally and $13.2 million in our state.
One of today’s best-known foundations is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is Seattle based. It was founded with earnings from Microsoft and generously supported by business mogul Warren Buffet.
Gates is part of a movement that has supported work in more than 100 countries that face challenges in education, poverty, hunger and health. By 2020, it aims to have prevented more than 11 million deaths, 264 million illnesses and 3.9 million disabilities by providing sustainable vaccine coverage and medical support.
This year saw powerful and destructive hurricanes smack into Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and massive wildfires sweeping across the West.
Corporations such as Walmart and Boeing are among those generously responding to disasters. Walmart, the second largest corporate philanthropic company, and the Walmart Foundation have donated more than $35 million to 2017 disaster relief efforts while Boeing chipped in with $3.2 million.
Those contributions have greatly augmented our military and FEMA work in feeding, clothing and sheltering people who lost everything.
As generous as our large companies are, the vast majority of charity in America – and here in Washington – is quietly donated by small businesses and individuals who never make the headlines.
One of the most notable examples is Jim McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture in Houston. When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Gulf Coast, he opened his bed and mattress stores to those left homeless. He did the same when many New Orleans residents retreated to Houston after Hurricane Katrina because, as he put it: “It was the right thing to do.”
In our region thousands of citizens and small businesses jumped in to assist those displaced by massive wildfires.
These volunteers deserve our thanks and support. Their efforts are a reminder that all of us, regardless of income or status, can contribute to our communities in some way — and, in doing so, we make ourselves and our communities better.
While some may focus on what is wrong with America, our philanthropy is what we do well.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.