Is American philanthropy exceptional?

In discussions I have had with some friends in the past few weeks, a theme has emerged. This theme is one of how Americans view their own giving or philanthropy.  While  a friend suggested that Americans viewed their own philanthropic practices as being exceptional, it is worthwhile to see if this is true or not.

By ‘exceptional’ I mean one that is uniquely its own and one that cannot be understood by the logics of another framework of philanthropy.

For sure, American philanthropy has its origins in how American civil society emerged – with its own neighborhood associations and societies for self-help. Alexis Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who documented the American society during his visit in his Democracy in America gives a good overview of how this society functioned and operated.

In the book, Tocqueville wrote of the equality that Americans had – while noting that slavery still existed and also that native-Americans were mistreated. These points are worthy of mention, given that American civil society has always had this tension and battle of ideas. And of course, the contradictions inherent within this system.

As we observe MLK Day, we are witnessing the same tension in American society, almost two hundred years ago. We celebrate the life of an icon, who spearheaded the civil rights movement and gave new meaning to ‘service’ and effortless giving to the cause of one’s nation and community, while days away from inaugurating a President who not only believes in American exceptionalism, but has also won his election based on many falsehoods and a divisive agenda.

While we can compare American philanthropy with that of other countries and find much that is exceptional – indeed there are elements that make American philanthropy stand out. There is also much that ties American philanthropy to that in other parts of the world , especially given that even today more than one-third of giving is to religious institutions and causes. This is a global trend and one can see religious giving as being very high on the giving radar of most people around the world, with the exception of Western Europe.


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