Donating -- Is It the American Way?

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In the United States, there are 1,429,801 tax-exempt organizations made up of 966,599 public charities (including 321,380 congregations), 96,584 private foundations and 366,618 other types of nonprofits, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. These organizations paid for 9.2% of all wages in the US and accounted for 5.5% of GDP (gross domestic product). Charitable contributions are over $320 billion with religious organizations receiving 32% of this and educational institutions getting 13 percent. Over the last five years, the World Giving Index rates the US as the most giving country, followed by Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and the UK. What is driving the number one rating is the fact that helping a stranger is more commonplace in the US than in any other country in the world, with 77% of Americans saying they helped someone they did not know. The US ranks third globally in volunteering, and thirteenth in donating money.

People of the US have a long history of giving back. Starting with the Pilgrims in 1630, as is noted in US News, relied on neighbors to survive the harsh winters. The settlers raised each others' barns, hosted quilting bees for the community and built common areas in their towns. Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous American Founding Fathers, is also known as the Founding Father of American volunteerism of the late 1700s. He gathered volunteers to sweep the streets of Philadelphia, organized the nation's first volunteer fire department, established a voluntary militia and organized a philosophical society. His philosophy was "individuals working together, un-coerced, for the common good." In the 1830s, two groups who felt their lack of power - women, who had no right to vote, and the clergy, whose political authority was weakened by the constitutional separation of church and state - formed benevolent societies to focus on issues they felt hurt our society. These groups addressed slavery, cruelty, drinking, illiteracy and more.

Throughout American history, billionaires have given to improve our society. Andrew Carnegie, who made his fortune in the steel industry, helped fund 3,000 public libraries over 100 years ago; which even today continues to impact most Americans. He funded construction of 7,000 church organs and his Carnegie Hall in New York City still stands as a monument to his belief that music can improve a society. John Rockefeller, Jr., who made his fortune in oil, donated land along the East River in Manhattan for the United Nations headquarters, in his belief that the world together can get better. In today's world of billionaires, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, probably the two best known billionaires, created the "Giving Pledge,"which now has 127 current billionaires committed to pledging at least half of their wealth to help nonprofits. These are examples of the very visible givers. There are hundreds of others who have given to help hospitals and schools and the underprivileged that are not in the news.

Overall, Americans give, on average, 3% of their income to charity, a figure that has not budged significantly for decades. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that there are significant differences in how much the average American gives. In Utah and Mississippi households average 7 percent of their income to charity, while in Massachusetts and three other New England states, giving is under 3 percent. Middle class Americans give a far bigger share of their discretionary income. For example, households earning $50,000-$75,000 give an average of 7.6 percent of their income to charity compared to 4.2 percent of people making over $100,000. Religion has a big influence on giving patterns. Two of the top nine states giving the most as a percentage of income are Utah and Idaho, who have a high number of Mormon residents that have a tradition of tithing 10 percent of their income to the church. All of the other seven top states are in the Bible Belt.

What are the reasons people help other people? According to, giving to charity improves your sense of well-being, knowing that you sacrificed time, finances or property to help others. Supporting a cause can help keep you informed about issues of social injustice. Giving to charity out of spiritual conviction can strengthen your spiritual life. Volunteering with a charity may result in physical and social benefits. And donations are tax deductible.

Having donations as a tax deductible item has been in the fabric of our taxes since the Revenue Act of 1917, which established for the first time, an individual income tax deduction for contributions made to tax-exempt charitable organizations. According to CNN, the charitable deduction is the ninth largest tax expenditure in the federal budget. In 2014, the amount of revenue the government will forgo from those claiming charitable deductions is estimated to reach $52 billion. Giving on one hand helps those in need, while on the other hand pushes our government into greater debt.

Community service is not political and it is not mandated by the state. It is something that comes from deep within our core values. A true definition of this can be seen with the Society of Secret Santas, who give away $100 bills of their own money to the needy to help reinforce the self-worth and image of those they help as well as show unconditional love to those who feel society has stopped caring about them. We do not know who these Secret Santas are. They give in anonymity, they show leadership by leading by example and they show humility by sharing their wealth in a humble, selfless way. They show compassion through random acts of kindness, tapping into the human spirit by giving the recipient hope and belief. Anonymous givers set the stage to teach our kids about the selflessness of being kind. Whether it is cleaning out your closet to help a charitable organization or spending time to help the elderly or volunteering to help a neighbor do yard work or shovel snow, the examples we adults set today by our actions will influence how the next generation views their obligations to others. Each community has several opportunities to donate money and time to help others in your town. Online or are worthy ways to quickly help others in need. At DollarDays on our Facebook page, we are giving away $5,000 in products to help non-profits support their causes, so please nominate your favorite charity that deserves our help.

From Ben Franklin to Andrew Carnegie to Warren Buffet, well known leaders set the example for us, but you don't have to be a billionaire leaving a legacy to make a difference. More than 200 years ago, Mr. Franklin believed that "one served not to save their soul, but to build a strong society." In our modern day society, volunteering still forms the core of the American character. It is who we are and how we pass on freedom and caring to the next generation. Maybe that is one reason that seniors volunteer at a higher rate than our children. The experience of life that seniors finally learn after all those years is precious, and if we can teach the younger generations to care more about others, we can continue to be the most charitable nation, just like our forefathers.