Richard Reiss: Giving Thought – A Meditation on American Generosity | Chroniclers
In the early 1980s, I was an employee of the Boy Scouts of America. My title was district executive. I was responsible for organizing the new Scout Troops, Cub Packs and Explorer positions. I also provided leadership support and training to troops, packs and positions already in place. It was a really good job for someone who had just graduated from college. Hours were flexible, I had a company car and I was paid to sleep in a tent occasionally in the woods. What could be better for someone who has no interest in sitting at a desk?
The other part of the job, the part that could make or break a career, was fundraising. At the time, I knew as much about fundraising as I did about open heart surgery, meaning I didn’t know anything. Nonetheless, I was friendly, not afraid to ask, and a decent listener. I started to understand.
I don’t know exactly when the bulb flashed, but between 1983 and 1985 I realized that I wasn’t going to work for the BSA forever. Instead, I decided to become a professional fundraiser. It was something I was comfortable doing, but more than that, it was common sense. The government, under President Ronald Reagan, was cutting or cutting funding for a long list of social services and other government-funded programs.
These vital programs and organizations were not about to disappear. They would do whatever is necessary to continue their good work. They would quickly learn that their future survival depended on the generosity of others. And they would need someone – someone like me – to find, cultivate, and solicit potential donors who would allow them to continue doing what they were doing so well.
I think about it now, walking to my mailbox on a cool Berkshire day, as the new year has just begun. As I open the little green letterbox door, I notice that there are no letters asking for end of year donations. A week ago there would have been at least half a dozen, and certainly well over a hundred for the month of December. That’s a lot of requests and, even as a fundraiser, I’m happy to see the flurry of requests come to an end, if only temporarily.
Six months from now, when the data becomes available, we will know how generous Americans were in 2021. I can tell you now that will be a big number. In 2020, donations to all charities in the United States totaled $ 471 billion, of which 69% came directly from individuals.
As a nation, we should feel good about our generosity. For the most part, it’s a beautiful expression of selflessness, and no other country on the planet comes close to this level of charitable giving. Even so, I can’t help but think that a critical force driving philanthropy over the years has been the government’s ability to back away from its commitments to education, social services, health care, arts and our most vulnerable citizens.
Did you know that there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States? They all fundraise and I’m glad my career can help fill a need. But as someone who has spent most of their working life in higher education, I have found that whenever public funding for colleges and universities goes down, those same colleges and universities will step up their fundraising activities. .
Philanthropy can be wonderful and transformational. I have never felt so good in my career as when a major donor thanked me for helping to create a joyful giving experience. Yet in the back of my mind I have often thought that much of this work would not have been necessary if the government had better fulfilled its basic functions.
Philanthropy dates back to the Bible, and wealthy donors often cite a passage from the Bible regarding personal generosity. Luke 12:48: “For whoever is given much, much will be asked of him. “
Of course, donate to the charity of your choice and give to the best of your ability. But the next time you hear about the government raising taxes to help support schools, the arts, or mental health programs, think about who you’re giving a lot to. No one gets more than Uncle Sam and it wouldn’t hurt Uncle Sam to have a bigger heart. And maybe, just maybe, our mailboxes will all be a little lighter next year.
Richard Reiss is the author of “Desperate love: memory of a father”. He lives in Canaan, NY, with his wife Paula. He can be reached at [email protected]