In the early 1980s, I was an employee of the Boy Scouts of America. My title was district executive. I was responsible for organizing new Scout Troops, Cub Packs and Explorer posts. I also provided support and leadership training to the troops, packs and posts already in place. It was a pretty good job for someone fresh out of college. The hours were flexible, I had a company car and I got paid for occasionally sleeping in a tent in the woods. What could be better for someone who had no interest in sitting at a desk?
The other piece of the job, the piece that could make or break a career, was fundraising. Back then, I knew as much about fundraising as I did about open-heart surgery, which is to say I knew nothing. Nonetheless, I was friendly, not afraid to ask, and a decent listener. I began to figure it out.
I don’t exactly know when the light bulb flashed, but sometime between 1983 and 1985 I realized 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 made good sense. The government, under President Ronald Reagan, was in the process of reducing or cutting funding from a long list of social services and other government-funded programs.
These vital programs and organizations were not about to fade into the sunset. They would do everything 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 enable them to keep doing what they had been doing so well.
I think about this now, walking to my mailbox on a crisp Berkshires day, as the new year has just begun. As I open the little green mailbox door, I notice there are no letters asking for year-end donations. A week ago, there would have been at least a half-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 solicitations come to an end, even if only temporarily.
In six months, when the data is in, we will know how generous Americans were in 2021. I can tell you now it will be a big number. In 2020, donations to all charities in the U.S. were $471 billion, with 69 percent coming directly from individuals.
As a nation, we should feel good about our generosity. For the most part, it is 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 feel that a critical force driving philanthropy over the years has been the government’s ability to walk away from its commitments to education, social-services, health care, the arts and our most vulnerable citizens.
Did you know there are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States? They are all raising money, and I’m glad my career could help fill a need. But as someone who spent most of his professional life in higher education, I saw that every time state funding for colleges and universities declined, those same colleges and universities ramped up their fundraising activities.
Philanthropy can be wonderful and transformational. I’ve never felt better in my career than when a major donor thanked me for helping to create a joyful giving experience. Yet, in the back of my mind I often thought that much of this work would not have been necessary had the government been better at fulfilling its basic duties.
Philanthropy goes back to Bible, and wealthy donors often cite a Biblical passage concerning personal generosity. Luke 12.48: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”
Of course, give to the charity of your choice and give to the best of your ability. But next time you hear talk about the government raising taxes to help support or schools or the arts or mental health programming, think about whomsoever much is given. Nobody is given more than Uncle Sam and it wouldn’t hurt for Uncle Sam to have a bigger heart. And maybe, just maybe, our mailboxes will all be a little lighter next year.