Our opinion: Charitable giving an American institution

December 29, 2017

As appeared in the Daily Record

As we end a year of heightened civic awareness and pointed civil discord — capped by a major overhaul to the U.S. tax code — we at the Community Foundation of New Jersey have heard the full range of concerns from current and prospective donors about what 2018 will bring.

We feel it might be beneficial for all New Jerseyans to call to mind the longtime American tradition of joining together in the service of a greater cause. While philanthropy, volunteerism, and activism have attracted many new practitioners this year — and for a variety of worthwhile reasons — they have, in fact, been the constant force behind strong communities for centuries. No matter changes in the tax code, politics, or in society as a whole, philanthropy endures.

In the 19th century, it was the philanthropists and social reformers who sparked a moral awakening across the country that led to the abolitionist movement. More recently, New Jerseyans of all backgrounds have incubated and benefited from charitable associations — from our universities and museums to our school reforms and efforts to improve public health. Indeed, charity is such an essential part of American life and among all income levels that there is probably not a person in America who at one point has not been its source or recipient.

That willingness to band together remains alive and well in America today. Just as the country came together for those of us reeling from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we saw similar levels of giving to hard-hit communities in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico following this fall’s rash of deadly hurricanes.

It is no wonder America remains the most generous of the industrialized nations, contributing an astonishing $390 billion in charity in 2016. And our giving is predictably democratic, with lower income families actually more likely to donate and, in fact, giving a greater percentage of their income during the Great Recession.

According to GivingUSA, more than seven in ten Americans donate to charity each year, which is roughly the same percentage of Americans who take the standard deduction on their income taxes (instead of itemizing). It seems that wherever you are in New Jersey or across this country, there is a perception that giving to charity is an important part of being an American. A “sense of purpose” is, in fact, consistently the top-rated motivator among donors.

After a turbulent 2017, Americans are feeling energized about their democracy and want to contribute to their communities to shape the country that they love. Some donations will go to national or international causes, whereas others will reflect the adage that charity begins at home. These donations are all powered by that sense of purpose or desire to create change.

For those who seek lasting impact on the issues or communities they care about — and even those seeking to leverage their current year’s giving for maximum future tax deductions — donor advised funds are an increasingly appealing option to structure and leverage their philanthropy. Giving from a donor advised fund tends to have more impact than last-minute check-writing because it separates the work of obtaining that future tax deduction (which occurs up front) from the goal of achieving meaningful change, which often requires support over a sustained period of time. When working with a community foundation, donors may also leverage the support and wisdom of professional philanthropic staff, who not only research and identify effective interventions within a donor’s area of interest, but also ensure the best and highest use of a fundholders’s dollars to achieve change.

Organizations like the Community Foundation of New Jersey are also able to avoid some of the problems of a more divided time by pooling together resources on issues where there is broad agreement, such as preventing human trafficking or working to end the opioid crisis in our hometowns.

Whether you are someone who opens her checkbook after a natural disaster or one who sets aside a little each month for a worthy cause, you are part of a long tradition of Americans who saw someone who needed help or something that needed improving, and who did something about it. Being a part of this living legacy of philanthropy — this year or any year — is something we can all be proud of.