Is American Philanthropy exceptional?

Is American philanthropy exceptional? As the most generous country in the world (by some counts) is the U.S. unique in the way that it advocates and practices charity? While the U.S. remains one of the most creative, dynamic and trend-setting countries when it comes to charitable giving, is it truly that unique? On the surface, this seems to be true, but I will argue that this is not the case and perhaps while it seems to be the case the American philanthropy is exceptional, it is one of the ways in which philanthropy is conceptualized and perhaps its framing is exceptional, not its practice. Philanthropy in the U.S. is as much a ‘social relation’ and an act of fulfilling one’s obligation to one’s society as it in other cultures and societies, though neoliberalism and market-led forces may be individualizing and customizing philanthropy in ways that is somewhat conflicting with its intended purposes.



Let us see some arguments made for why American philanthropy is considered exceptional. I can think of four main ones. A brief examination of each and a short discussion follows: Firstly, Americans are the most generous people in the world –This is certainly true, if giving is measured in aggregate dollar terms and as a percent of giving voluntarily to causes of one’s choosing. Just looking at data from Giving USA 2013 points us to this fact. Americans gave more than $ 300 billion in 2012, to causes ranging from nonprofits, to churches, mosques, synagogues and homeless shelters. By all counts, this is staggering. Secondly, roughly $100 billion dollars were given to religious institutions in 2012. Of the total charitable donations, 1/3rd of the amount was given to churches, synagogues and other religious institutions, according to the Giving USA report. This is a drop from roughly ½ of the total charity to religious institutions, from a few decades. Despite this, the amount of religious giving is quite important and shows that Americans are still deeply religious people. Thirdly, consider tax exemption – The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers tax exemption for donations made to charity. While this is a controversial element of American tax policy, the incentivization has been in place to encourage people to donate to charities and participate in charitable endeavors. As Peter Frumkin points out in his book Strategic Giving, “Tax exemption is an acknowledgement of the independence and freedom of private action. Federal and state governments accept the desirability of having independent actors for the common good and shield them from taxation so they can operate without owing funds to the government.”(Pg.30). This is not without problems and comes up as a controversial topic in both scholarly and public discourses.

Finally, the focus on individual agency – While Americans are known for their group forming behavior, or colloquially known to be ‘joiners’, there is much debate on the decline in civil society and social capital, captured in works by Robert Putnam in Bowling alone, or Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart – two books that are considered classics. Philanthropy is still seen as an individual endeavor or desire by individuals to shape the world around them. In this sense, it is a deeply individualistic act.


 Tensions in American philanthropy: What is not so exceptional about American philanthropy

While the philanthropic sector in the U.S. seems to be growing, despite the recent economic recession, it remains deeply contested. While critics on both the left and right of the political spectrum criticize it for various reasons, it does remain an inevitable part of American social life. Peter Frumkin, Associated Professor at University of Pennsylvania points out that the field of philanthropy is fractured and disorganized, in more ways than one. There is confusion at the level of actors, at the donor and receivers level, as well as at what stage should giving occur – before or after death. The mechanics of giving are under debate too, and there is no consensus on many aspects of giving (pg.27). He further adds that philanthropy as a field of activity exposes, rather than resolves deep-seated differences between individuals in terms of how they believe society should be organized and what public needs should take priority. The introduction of private resources into philanthropy the public domain that is a central feature of giving cannot help but create confusion and contention. (Pg.28).Philanthropy in this sense is problematic and has in the past created several public policy conflicts and continues to be debated, though not the extent of the heydays of the foundations, when they were questioned and interrogated, most famously by the Walsh commission, in 1919.

Consider for instance the notion among many Libertarians that the only responsibility that businesses have is to its share-holders and concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility are not really relevant in a capitalist society such as the U.S. Coupled with other market-led notions of individual freedom and agency, philanthropic notions are being challenged, all the while undergoing a transformation of sorts. While newer technologies and ways of conceptualizing philanthropy – in the form of Philanthrocapitalism, giving circles are all making ‘giving’ more personal and commodifying it, I believe we are witnessing a new phase of philanthropy that is bringing individualism to the fore, at the expense of communitarianism, or group solidarity; one of the cardinal philosophical tenets of philanthropy.

At this level, I believe we are witnessing tensions that may radically alter how we view philanthropy and its role. These are tensions that exist across various countries and cultures, and not just in the U.S. The state, religion and individual’s conception of charity and philanthropy are at competition in each culture. One can also argue that the focus on efficiency and business-like running of nonprofits across the world is a fact that one needs to contend with, when analyzing the sector’s growth and proliferation. This, I argue is a direct result of neoliberal frameworks, that have spread around the world. Consumerism and branding are two other recent trends in philanthropy that seem to be influencing the growth of the field, in radically new ways. How will competition shape philanthropy, and in particular those benevolent forms of charities? Will UNICEF fight for dollars from Habitat for Humanity and how will this fight end?

These are deep philosophical questions as they are pragmatic ones. Considering how philanthropy is undergoing a shift in focus, from an ethics based norm (charity) to a more businesslike, efficiency driven ‘philanthropy,’ the world over; I believe that philanthropy in the U.S. is not exceptional and is witnessing the similar kinds of tensions that the sector is witnessing in other parts of the developed (and developing) world. The relationship of the individual and state is at stake here, so is the question of the role of wealthy donors and corporations, those who control the purse strings in an economy.


Frumkin Peter. Strategic Giving. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2006. Print.

2 thoughts on “Is American Philanthropy exceptional?”

  1. I entirely agree with your implied premise – US (rather than ‘American’) philanthropy is not exceptional. Yes, it involves institutions which are native to the country – such as the tax treatment which you discuss. But the US concept of philanthropy was inherited and remains consistent with other, much older cultures including the Islamic culture of giving which in turn spread to Europe. Many of the institutions of philanthropy in the US were adopted from Britain, including foundations and the legal concept of ‘charity’ which is based on the Elizabethan statute of 1601.

    Some of the significant differences, especially the significantly higher levels of contribution stem from the era of World War I and its aftermath. Under the influence of Keynes especially, in Britain, but also in most of Europe, the state took responsibility for education, culture, health, welfare and religion. In the US this responsibility was taken up by philanthropy – supported, nonetheless, indirectly by the state through the generous tax treatment of philanthropy created in 1913 when income tax was first introduced in the US. Oliver Zunz describes US philanthropy as “self-taxing for the common good” and cites Tocqueville who talked of it in his descriptions of Jeffersonian (early 19th century) America, as “self interest properly understood”. (Zunz, O 2012, Philanthropy in America: a History, Princeton University Press, Princeton)

    1. Thanks for the comment John. Yes, the more I think about it, the more I see commonalities between countries. While American giving is quite staggering, the fine print is that much of this is done in almost a ‘business like’ manner. No doubt that large foundations give out a lot of money, but all of these are tied to tax incentives and other mechanisms that Zunz, Frumkin and others point out. Northern European countries are more ‘philanthropic’ if you look at the welfare-state. Hope you are doing well.

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