Private philanthropy is peculiarly American Donations: People in United States give money for public causes to a greater degree than in any other country. The reason? It is their nature.

December 28, 1997|By R.C. Longworth

After Claude Monet's children died, the great Impressionist artist's gardens beside the River Seine at Giverny wasted away to weeds. The French institute that inherited the home wanted to restore the splendor, but lacking ready cash, launched an appeal for funds. In due time, the money was raised and the gardens bloomed again, a marvelous mix of art and horticulture.

Almost all the money came not from France but from the United States. A plaque beside the entrance that honors the major donors makes it clear that most of them were Americans, such as Walter Annenberg and Reader's Digest founders DeWitt and Lila Wallace.

This sort of private giving for a public cause seems to be a peculiarly American thing, and it takes many forms.

It can be the gift of money, from the coins in the Salvation Army buckets at Christmas to the billion-dollar beneficence of media mogul Ted Turner. It can be the gift of time, from service on local school boards to slicing and dicing on homeless shelter cutting boards.

It can be local, such as the men and women who coach recent immigrants in the English language, or it can be international, such as the Chicago executive who is spending his retirement years teaching the mysteries of business to would-be entrepreneurs in Russia.

These, of course, are only a few examples among literally millions of acts of charity, small and large, that generally make this country a better place to live.

What these Americans are doing is being citizens in the most useful meaning of the term. They are taking responsibility for their own civilizations, for the communities local, national and global in which they live. They are going beyond their immediate jobs and homes to justify the space they occupy on the face of Earth.

Nearly half of all American adults, 49 percent, volunteer an average of 4.2 hours of their time every week, according to Independent Sector, a Washington association that keeps track of philanthropy. This is about the same percentage that voted in the 1996 election, although voting participation is going down while volunteering has remained at a steady level over the years.

This sort of private philanthropy takes place in many other countries but to nowhere the same degree as it does here. The reasons for this go to the heart of Americans' relationship to their government and their civilization.

In most major nations, if a project is worthwhile and can't pay its own way, the government supports it, through taxes. This is true for hospitals (national health systems), for schools (tuition-free universities) and for culture. (Every major German city has its own opera and symphony orchestra, supported by the local government.)

This is not a bad thing. First, it suits the more communal and consensual societies of Europe, which accept a bigger role for government and for taxes as the dues that citizens pay to their societies.

This use of taxes, even for minority tastes such as opera, underscores the fact that citizens have a stake in a broader civilization. This is not unknown here: Older or childless Americans pay property taxes to support local schools, and young Americans cement the ties between generations through Social Security.

But in most countries, one would not see a benefactor's name on a hospital wing, nor a list of donors in the back of a playbill at a small theater, nor a mention at the end of an obituary soliciting donations for the departed's pet charity.

Nor are Europeans expected to serve in parent-teacher associations, nor to act as mentors to deprived children, nor to give time to retirement homes.

In much of Europe, most universities are free or virtually free and are supported totally by taxes. Margaret Thatcher, when she was prime minister of Britain, stirred a storm by proposing that university students pay tuition, and the German government recently provoked a mass demonstration in Bonn over cuts in education spending that could lead to tuition fees.

Even the smallest and most low-tech American college has a long-standing "development" department, armed with lists of graduates, whose purpose is to raise money for scholarships, endowed chairs, athletics, medical research or just plain operating expenses.

By contrast, Britain's Oxford University, one of the world's most venerable seats of learning, hired its first development officer less than a decade ago.

To part of the world, this American penchant for everyday good works is simply baffling. Russians, for instance, cannot comprehend that Americans believe people have a responsibility for small and regular philanthropy as the price of citizenship.

Russians are conditioned, through centuries of czardom and communism, to a top-down society in which everything jobs, rights, schools, punishment, music is the gift of the ruler of the day. If the ruler doesn't deliver, nothing happens.

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