A Gospel of Giving

10 year old holding charity donations in a jar
10 year old holding charity donations in a jar

by Vartan Gregorian
President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

At the recent Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy awards held at The New York Public Library, one of the honorees, David Rubenstein, read a letter "composed" and "signed" by Andrew Carnegie. It was addressed to me. It instructed me to "remind everyone that philanthropy is something anyone can do -- and everyone should do."

The importance of the subject and the circumstances under which I received the message compel me to respond. After all, we at Carnegie Corporation of New York, the philanthropic foundation established by Mr. Carnegie, are the guardians of his vision and legacy. In addition, his message was delivered at an auspicious time: shortly before Mr. Carnegie's 180th birthday on November 25, Thanksgiving, and Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving on December 1. The confluence of these significant dates, all related to philanthropy, helps remind us that it was Andrew Carnegie, along with John D. Rockefeller, who advanced the concept of "scientific philanthropy" in the early 20th century. They proposed that the wealthy should not only give freely and generously, but do so with the intent to improve our common wealth and the common good, understanding that philanthropy should not only address the symptoms of social and economic problems but invest in finding the solutions. It was these ideals that helped to formulate Mr. Carnegie's famous Gospel of Wealth in which he proposed that with wealth comes the responsibility to reinvest in one's society and humanity, and that "the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced."

With these thoughts in mind, I have composed the following reply to the founder of the Corporation:

Dear Mr. Carnegie, I am pleased to report that in the United States, the country where you arrived as an immigrant in 1848, philanthropy is flourishing. Since your time, American philanthropy has established many universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, orchestras, and theaters; it has supported scientific research and academic fellowships; funded libraries and museums; fed people who were hungry and even built houses for them. Indeed, today there are nearly 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S., which underscores the strength of our democracy, as well as our common bonds and common interests.

Your example of openhearted giving is alive and well at every level of our society, demonstrating that generosity has become yet another American tradition. In 2014, Americans gave an estimated $358.38 billion to charity, a 7.1 percent increase from 2013. The largest source of charitable giving came from individuals, at $258.51 billion, or 72 percent of total giving, followed by foundations ($53.97 billion/15 percent), then bequests ($28.13 billion/8 percent), with corporations lagging behind ($17.77 billion/5 percent). And it isn't just the wealthy who give -- far from it. From 2006 to 2012, middle- and lower-income Americans increased the share of income they donated to charity even as they earned less, on average, than they had six years earlier. In addition, time is money: in 2013, 62.6 million Americans volunteered nearly 7.7 billion hours, representing an estimated value of nearly $173 billion. Further, more than 138 million Americans (62.5 percent) also showed solidarity with their fellow community members by engaging in "informal volunteering," such as helping neighbors with shopping, house-sitting, or watching each other's children.

These diverse and wide-ranging philanthropic efforts speak to the strength of our nation and the empathy of our citizens, and they reference the foundational roots of our democracy. They highlight the fact that, as a people, we are interdependent. We support and fight for each other's freedoms but also lend a helping hand when needed. As you well know, Mr. Carnegie, those qualities have been inherent in American life from the very beginning, though perhaps it took Alexis de Tocqueville, a visitor from France, to make that clear to us.

It was Tocqueville who coined the term 'individualism' to describe what he thought was a new and remarkable phenomenon Americans had brought into the world by creating a nation that truly belonged to its people. After visiting this country, he famously wrote in his book Democracy in America -- published in 1835, the year you were born -- that the citizens of America seemed to have an "enlightened regard for themselves," which spurred them to "willingly sacrifice a portion of their time and property" to improve the welfare of the state and of their fellow men and women. The fact that Americans were committed both to advancing the welfare of their families and to the progress of their communities was a testament to the strength of democracy, which could support the common good while also making room for individual achievement.

You will be happy to know that 180 years later, another visitor to the United States, Pope Francis, brought us a similar message about the importance of caring for our fellow human beings, not only here but around the world. "Humanity has the ability to work together in building our common home," he told us, and summoned the spirit of St. Francis in urging that we remember how, in giving, we are the ones who truly receive.

I know you would have agreed with these sentiments, as would a particular individual whom you admired: Adam Smith, most widely known as the father of modern capitalism. While you and he were both unabashed capitalists who favored free markets, you knew that Smith was also a moral philosopher. In fact, he based his economic theories upon his view of human nature, which he described in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759. There, he theorized that man is driven by passionate self-interest, which is moderated by his intellect and innate sympathy for others. In that regard, perhaps Adam Smith was looking forward to the advent of both Tocqueville's nod to individualism and your Gospel because he was signaling a new trend on the American scene: how individualism and capitalism would go hand in hand as philanthropy became a deeply rooted feature of our national life.

Now, in this holiday season, I believe it is time once again to reread your Gospel of Wealth. Doing so will help us to recommit ourselves to the ideal of giving, since wealth is something we all have: if not monetary riches, we have our time, our love of family, our dedication to our great nation, and many ways that we can share joy and be generous with our efforts, because generosity enhances our humanity, and will allow us to do what you, Mr. Carnegie, called "real and permanent good in this world."

And so I conclude my reply to Andrew Carnegie. If he were alive today, I'm sure he would celebrate each and every one of you in all the ways you give of yourselves to lift up your fellow citizens and enrich the noble aspirations of America. For remember, we may not be a perfect nation, but we are always perfectible. On behalf of Mr. Carnegie, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving and happy giving.