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What can we learn from US philanthropy?

What can we learn from US philanthropy?

What’s different about charitable giving in the United States to what happens here in the UK? Without a doubt, giving is more prevalent, people talk about it and that in turn encourages others to do it. But why is that and what can we learn from it?

“They’re just so much more philanthropic than us in the US,” is the response I’m usually given.

Is it true? Well, yes and no. Look around us in the UK, at the many public buildings, the hospitals, schools and libraries. Look at the breadth of charities, many of them hundreds of years old, and the programmes of public works – so many of which have been funded by a mixture of , private investment and public money.

Philanthropy is deeply rooted in our culture, but we sometimes forget that is the case. In part, this lack of awareness comes from our resistance to talking about money and that, of course, includes charitable giving. But I believe it is also due to a weakened sense of community.

When we moved as a family to the States thirteen years ago and bought a house – we received numerous messages to welcome us into the community. Neighbours warmly introduced themselves, showing us around and answering our questions.

We were quickly asked to lend a hand ourselves on community projects, renovating a playground, picking up litter and planting trees. Then we were asked to support the Veterans’ Association, the Fire Service, the Cathedral two blocks away, local literacy programmes and food banks.

Rapidly, we were drawn into the community; being supported and asked to do our bit, with the understanding that that’s what neighbours do. And that, perhaps, is where the difference really lies; our perception of community and what it means.


The US approach to community is deeply philanthropic

Community is at the very heart of US culture. It’s how people define themselves, where they belong. And if philanthropy is defined as the love of one’s fellow people, of humanity and to promote the welfare of others, then the US approach to community is deeply philanthropic. What drives people to support each other in this way is a deep sense of responsibility to community – whether that be local, based on faith, descent or a multitude of other factors. The belief that if you give, you will receive in return.

It’s this ‘social safety net’ that was noted nearly 200 years ago by the French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who stated that in a frontier society you look to your own for support. If you see a problem, get together and fix it. Don’t hang around waiting for government – it might take forever. And they’d probably fix it wrong.

In the UK, have we lost our faith in community? Absolutely not. You just have to look at the strength of community-based charities, the army of volunteer supporting good causes in some shape or form, sponsorship fundraising, crowdfunding, and on to our local village fete.


An expectation of volunteering

But the difference is that, in the US, volunteering is the norm. There is an expectation that we will engage, in many different ways, and there will be surprise if we do not. And there is a clear understanding that the benefit is two ways. That we build standing and connections in our community at the same time it benefits from our support. At home in the UK, personal gain from community action simply doesn’t have the same, positive ring to it.

So what can we learn from the US? It’s not that we aren’t inherently philanthropic. It’s not that we don’t achieve great things. But we need to do more to embrace and nurture community and celebrate our achievements, publicly rather than just privately.

Let people know what can be done when we do things together, collectively rather than in an isolated fashion – how community initiatives can lead the way, not lag behind, state-led social policies. And how the concept of giving to charity is one of the most effective ways of strengthening the communities around us.


Andrew Watt

Andrew Watt is Senior Principal of Accordant Europe. Having worked with the fundraising community since the early 1990s, Andrew’s career spans roles on both sides of the Atlantic, working as Deputy CEO of the Institute of Fundraising, president and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the US and interim president and CEO of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy in the US. A public policy and advocacy expert, Andrew has advised regulators across the globe on many aspects of the regulation and practice of fundraising. He recently returned to the UK, setting up the European arm of Accordant Philanthropy.

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