As tax season approaches, Americans scramble to collect their receipts. What they will find, collectively, is an incredibly generous country.
In 2004, U.S. charitable giving reached $249 billion, with individuals giving $188 billion of that total.
And the numbers are expected to increase significantly for 2005 as most contributions for tsunami relief and Katrina relief occurred then.
Where does this massive charitable impulse come from?
It is not a function of wealth and age. Young people in this country learn the philanthropy habit early. Example: One of the longest-running and largest charitable events in the country is Northwestern University's Dance Marathon, an annual early March madness that consists of 30 hours of shaking a leg for charity by 500 dancers supported by nearly as many volunteers and 15,000 spectators. The event this year brought in $686,377 for the Pediatric AIDS Chicago Prevention Initiative and the Evanston Community Foundation.
Recipients of national charity are so diverse as to defy summary. Churches receive about $88 billion, and colleges and universities another $25 billion. But examine any United Way workplace brochure, and the number and variety of charitable ventures are staggering. One organization has sprung up just to watch ministries in the country for efficiency and ethics: MinistryWatch.org. CharityNavigator.org is another watchdog group. Both understand that the generosity of Americans attracts scam artists, most of whom are much more sophisticated than the Nigerian e-mail spammers.
So where does it come from? There are more than 200,000 registered charities in Great Britain; 75,000 in Canada; and more than a million in the United States. Altruism is seen as a virtue in many religious traditions, but the explanation for the enormous network of giving in the West-its breadth and depth and continuing vitality-has to be the Christian roots of the West. Though slowly eroding and almost completely hidden now in the public square, the vast collective Christian faith of the English-speaking peoples produced a culture in which service to and comfort of the poor and the sick and every other category of the needy is simply a given. In every 501(c)(3) not-for-profit designation-no matter how secular the purpose and the board of directors-there is an echo of a country founded in large part by Christians intent on serving God and their fellow human beings.