The philanthropy of the little guys

Philanthropy | Examples of personal and individual giving that has fueled our nation
by Karl Zinsmeister
Posted 3/10/18, 09:00 am

“Diversity” on campuses and in companies these days emphasizes race and ethnicity but tends to leave out religion and worldview. “Diversity” in philanthropy, though, brings in all of the above, and that’s been a great strength in American giving. Even though the federal government has become the gorilla in everyone’s living room, we still allow room for ordinary individuals to be generous and creative in their small-scale but big-hearted love of mankind.

Karl Zinsmeister’s compact edition of The Almanac of American Philanthropy—a runner-up for WORLD’s 2017 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category—includes stories, stats, and insights on good charity vs. bad charity, plus comparisons of philanthropic and government problem-fixing. Also worthwhile: quotations on charitable goals (C.S. Lewis: “The proper aim of giving is to put the recipients in a state where they no longer need our gifts”) and data showing that those who attend religious services give four times more than those who don’t. The excerpt below, courtesy of The Philanthropy Roundtable, will give you a sense of the stories Zinsmeister tells and the charity he loves. —Marvin Olasky

Lots of little guys

Dwight Macdonald once described the Ford Foundation as “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.” (Back when the foundation’s headquarters was on a southern California desert estate, the staff sometimes called the place “Itching Palms.”) It’s easy to look at a big pile of silver like Ford and think that’s what American philanthropy is all about. But philanthropy in the U.S. is not just a story of moguls. In fact, it is not even primarily about wealthy people or (even less) big foundations.

Do you realize that only 15 percent of charitable giving in the U.S. comes from foundations? And only 5 percent from corporations? The rest comes from individuals—and the bulk of that from everyday givers, at an annual rate of about $2,600 per household. Even among foundations there is a strong tilt toward the small. Less than 2,000 foundations (2 percent of all) have assets of $50 million or more today. Most foundations are modest in size. And most giving is even smaller—but it is practiced very widely.

It is inexorable giving by humble Americans that constitutes the main branch of U.S. philanthropy. Take Gus and Marie Salenske, a plumber and nurse who lived quietly into the first decade of this millennium in a small house in Syracuse, New York. Their one indulgence was weekly square dancing; other than that they were savers. After they died, this simple couple left more than $3 million to good causes, mostly their beloved Catholic Church.

Anne Scheiber was a shy auditor who retired in 1944 with just $5,000 in the bank. Through frugal living and inspired stock picking she turned this into $22 million by the time she passed away in 1995 at the age of 101. She left it all to Yeshiva University so that bright but needy girls could attend college and medical school.

Minnesota farmer Harvey Ordung consumed modestly and invested prudently. When he passed on, he left $4.5 million to 12 charities in his home region. The largest portion went to a program that gives college scholarships to local kids.

Elinor Sauerwein painted her own home, kept a vegetable garden, and mowed the lawn herself until she was in her 90s. She eschewed restaurants, cable TV, and other expenses as unnecessary luxuries. But when she died in 2011, she left $1.7 million to the local Modesto, California, branch of the Salvation Army. “Her goal for years and years was to amass as much as she could so it would go to the Salvation Army,” reported her financial adviser.

Millicent Atkins earned a teaching degree in 1940, but eventually left that profession to help manage the family farm in South Dakota. She developed a keen eye for productive land and an appetite for buying, eventually owning 4,127 acres. When she died in 2012 she left $38 million to two nearby universities and her church.

It is inexorable giving by humble Americans that constitutes the main branch of U.S. philanthropy.

Albert Lexie shined shoes in Pittsburgh for more than 50 years, and made a decision decades ago to donate every penny of his tips to the Free Care Fund of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, which benefits families who can’t afford treatment. From 1981 to 2013, Lexie handed over more than $200,000 to Children’s Hospital—a third of his total earnings.

One of these humble givers you may have heard of is Oseola McCarty. I tell her story in detail in our Philanthropy Hall of Fame section. Her life could not have started much harder—she was conceived when her mother was raped on a wooded path in rural Mississippi. And it didn’t get easier with age. She started to work ironing clothes in elementary school, and dropped out at sixth grade to support her ailing aunt by taking in washing.

Hers wasn’t a standard-issue home laundry. McCarty scrubbed her clients’ clothes by hand on a rubboard. She did try an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but concluded that “the washing machine didn’t rinse enough, and the dryer turned the whites yellow.” After years of boiling shirts and linens and then doing four fresh-water rinses, that wasn’t good enough to meet her high standards. So she went back to her bubbling pots, Maid Rite scrubboard, and 100 feet of open-air clothesline.

Early in her life, McCarty reported, “I commenced to save money. I never would take any of it out. I just put it in. … It’s not the ones that make the big money, but the ones who know how to save who get ahead. You got to leave it alone long enough for it to increase.” This was a life secret she mastered, and when she retired in 1995, her hands painfully swollen with arthritis, this washerwoman who had been paid in little piles of coins and dollar bills her entire life revealed another secret: She had $280,000 in the bank. Even more startling: She decided to give most of it away—not as a bequest, but immediately.

Setting aside just enough to live on, McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for worthy but needy students seeking the education she never had. When the community found out what she had done, more than 600 men and women in Hattiesburg and beyond made donations that more than tripled her original endowment. Today, the university presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships every year.

The power of little guys and big guys joined together

Can anything large and consequential really be accomplished by these little and middling givers, or by the very limited population of big givers? The clear answer from American history is yes. Many remarkable things have been achieved by dispersed giving, which often aggregates in formidable ways.

Once upon a time, our country even built its naval ships via dispersed giving. When newborn America was having terrible troubles with pirates in the Mediterranean and revolutionary French raiders off our coasts, many communities took up subscriptions and gathered voluntary funds to build warships and hire captains. The good people of Salem, Massachusetts, for instance, contributed $74,700, in amounts ranging from $10 given by Edmund Gale to a pair of $10,000 donations from Elias Derby and William Gray, and built the frigate USS Essex, which became one of the most storied vessels in our new Navy.

When the War of 1812 arrived it was dispersed giving that saved us from calamity. As the conflict broke out, the U.S. Navy possessed a total of seven frigates and less than a dozen other seagoing ships. The British Navy at that same moment numbered a thousand warships, including 175 double-gun deck “ships of the line,” of which the United States had none. The comparison by firepower was even starker: a total of 450 cannons carried by the U.S. Navy versus 27,800 afloat in the Royal Navy.

So how did America avoid obliteration by the English juggernaut? Individually funded, decentralized warfighting—in the form of privateers. Not long after hostilities were declared there were 517 privately equipped and manned corsairs defending the U.S. “Let every individual contribute his mite, in the best way he can to distress and harass the enemy, and compel him to peace,” urged Thomas Jefferson in 1812. During the course of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy captured or sunk about 300 enemy ships, while U.S. privateers captured or sunk around 2,000, blasting British trade.

The American merchants and ordinary sailors who voluntarily organized themselves into fighting units got everything they hoped for. No more impressment of U.S. seamen. A restoration of free trading. And deep respect for the ability of America’s small colonies—weak of government but strong of civil society—to defend their interests.

Many remarkable things have been achieved by dispersed giving, which often aggregates in formidable ways.

That same pattern has been followed in many other sectors of American society. In chronicling the astonishing bloom of colleges in the U.S., author Daniel Boorstin noted that the state of Ohio, with just 3 million inhabitants, had 37 colleges in 1880. At that same time, England, a nation of 23 million people, had four. Why the difference? Education philanthropy.

Education philanthropy in the U.S. stretches back to our earliest days, a century and a half before we even had a country. The New College was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. Three years later it was renamed, after young minister John Harvard donated his library and half of his estate to the institution.

America’s first recorded fund drive was launched in 1643 to raise money for the college; after 500 British pounds were collected it was deemed a “great success.” The next year, colonial families were asked to donate a shilling in cash or a peck of wheat to support the citadel of higher learning in their midst. These voluntary donations, known as the “college corne,” sustained Harvard for more than a decade.

Fast forward to 2015. Nearly 50 American colleges were in the midst of fundraising campaigns aimed at raising at least a billion dollars in donations. Private gifts power even our public universities—institutions like the University of Virginia and the University of California, Berkeley now receive more revenue from voluntary giving (gifts and interest off previous gifts) than they do from state appropriations.

Relying on private individuals to train up the next generation of leaders, rather than leaving that responsibility to the crown or church, was an entirely new development in higher education. It burst forth across our new land, producing the College of William & Mary in 1693, the precursor to St. John’s College in 1696, Yale in 1701, and many others. Sub-innovations followed, like the spread of the endowed professorship from a first example in 1721. The pervasiveness of the endowed chair in the U.S. today tempts one to assume that this practice must be common everywhere, but actually it remains rare outside America, where it has helped drive our universities to international pre-eminence.

Our nation’s great bloom of universities illustrates perfectly the fruitful mixing of little and big givers. Institutions like the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York—a pioneer of science-based education that granted the first civil engineering and advanced agriculture degrees in the English-speaking world—relied on big gifts from major patrons like Stephen Van Rensselaer. Other places such as Western Reserve University in Ohio, founded just two years after Rensselaer and likewise destined to become a science powerhouse, relied on an entirely different philanthropic model—the sacrificial giving of thousands of local neighbors on the frontier. One supporter spent a whole winter hauling building supplies to the school from a quarry ten miles away. Another typical family pledged a portion of their annual milk and egg sales.

Starting in the 1840s, hundreds of Eastern churches began to pool small donations to support collegiate education across the western frontier. Within 30 years they had raised more than a million dollars to sustain 18 colleges. Hillsdale College was built up at this same time after professor and preacher Ransom Dunn circled through more than 6,000 miles of wild lands collecting nickels and dimes and dollars from settlers.

The power of personalism

Pledging your family egg sales to a local institution. Hauling stone all winter for a good cause. Donating your shoeshine tips. In our country, giving is often very personal.

Michael Brown was a Broadway lyricist with a hit musical under his belt, so his family was enjoying a burst of unanticipated prosperity. For their 1956 Christmas celebration he and his wife and two sons hosted a close friend, a young writer who was far from her home in the South. At the end of their gift exchange, the Browns handed their guest an envelope. Inside was a note that read: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”

The writer’s name was Harper Lee. When she had decided to try to make it as a novelist, she relocated (like many before her and since) to New York City. After getting there she found (like many before her and since) that she was so preoccupied with paying her rent—by working at an airline office and bookstore—that she had little time left over to focus on her literary craft. The Browns noticed this, and through some very personal philanthropy changed the course of U.S. literature.

With their donation in hand, Harper Lee quit her retail jobs. And during that gift year she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and became one of the most influential American books of all time.

While this was an especially intimate contribution, this kind of personalism is not at all unusual in American philanthropy. In fact, gifts where the givers and recipients are involved with each other, familiar with one another’s characters, and committed to each others’ flourishing, are some of the most successful forms of philanthropy. You can see this yourself any day. Volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity building project and you will often work next to the person who is going to occupy the house as soon as you get the roof on and the oven in. Sponsor a child in an inner-city Catholic school (or an overseas village) and you will have opportunities to follow the life progress of the beneficiary, share in his or her dreams, and perhaps attend a graduation.

Knowing the character of the person you are trying to help—strengths and weaknesses, needs and temptations—allows the giver to focus his help much more effectively and to avoid wasteful or mistaken or perverse forms of “help.” As William Blake put it, “If you would help another man, you must do so in minute particulars.” One man’s medicine can be another man’s poison; donors must prescribe for particular people, not treat “mankind” as some cold abstraction. Much of the best anti-poverty work carried out during America’s immigrant waves and transitions to industrialism during the 1800s and early 1900s took highly personal forms, where givers rolled up their sleeves and offered not only money but mentoring and guidance and support to specific men and women in need.

Gifts where the givers and recipients are involved with each other, familiar with one another’s characters, and committed to each others’ flourishing, are some of the most successful forms of philanthropy.

Stephen Girard was one of the five richest men in American history, when his wealth is measured as a percentage of GDP. But when the yellow-fever epidemics swept his hometown of Philadelphia—as they did many summers in the years before anyone realized that the deadly malady was carried up from the tropics on sailing ships, and spread by mosquitoes—Girard was a tireless personal leader in the efforts to tamp down the disease. This required courage, as the terrifying affliction would kill hundreds of people per day in a horror of delirium and bloody vomiting.

Residents who could afford it generally fled the city when epidemics roared through. Not Girard. He stayed in Philadelphia in 1793, 1797-1798, 1802, and 1820 to guide relief efforts, fund hospital operations, and provide direct care for individuals—often bathing and feeding the dying himself. Benjamin Rush (whose profile you can find in our Philanthropy Hall of Fame) did likewise. He worked himself to exhaustion assisting thousands of Yellow Fever victims, even after he contracted the disease himself. Both givers put their personal and business affairs entirely on hold during outbreaks. “As soon as things have quieted down a little you may be sure I shall take up my work with all the activity in my power,” Girard wrote to a friend in 1793. “But, for the moment, I have devoted all my time and my person, as well as my little fortune, to the relief of my fellow citizens.”

Nicholas Longworth grew up poor, apprenticed to a shoemaker for a period, before eventually earning great wealth. He gave much of it away to what he called “the devil’s poor,” whom he identified and helped in extremely personal ways. “Decent paupers will always find a plenty to help them, but no one cares for these poor wretches. Everybody damns them, and as no one else will help them, I must,” he concluded.

Longworth distributed food directly to these most abject cases, built apartments to salve their homelessness, and held personal sessions where he would listen patiently to sad stories and offer solace and assistance. When he died in 1863 in Cincinnati, Longworth’s funeral procession numbered in the thousands, a great many of them outcasts. Drunkards, prostitutes, beggars, and criminals sobbed at the loss of their one true friend.

Drunkards, prostitutes, beggars, and criminals sobbed at the loss of their one true friend.

The Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, were successful New York merchants and among this country’s most accomplished philanthropists at changing society and politics. They worked on a much more national scale than Longworth or Girard. Yet their machinations were often just as personal.

Fired by their evangelical Christian convictions, the Tappans were leading donors to the cause of abolishing slavery. After their funding turned the American Anti-Slavery Society into a mass movement with 250,000 members, mobs attacked their homes and businesses. Arthur escaped with his life only by barricading himself in one of the family stores well supplied with guns. Lewis’s home was sacked that same evening, with all of his family possessions pulled into the street and burned by slavery apologists.

The brothers did not buckle. Lewis left his house unrepaired—to serve, he said, as a “silent anti-slavery preacher to the crowds who will flock to see it.” More substantively, the two men decided to flood the U.S. with anti-slavery mailings over the following year. This brought them more death threats and harassment, none of which slowed them down.

When a group of Africans who had been captured by Spanish slavers rose against the crew of the ship transporting them and eventually came ashore on Long Island, Lewis immediately organized their defense against murder charges for having killed a crewmember. He decamped to Connecticut, where he clothed and fed the defendants, located and hired an interpreter of their African dialect, and brought in Yale students to tutor them in English, American manners, and Christianity. Then he retained top lawyers to represent their interests. He attended the court proceedings himself every day, organized a public-relations campaign, and eventually got the Africans freed after pushing their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His personal devotion and single-handed financing turned abolitionism into a cause célèbre.

From The Almanac of American Philanthropy: 2017 Compact Edition by Karl Zinsmeister. Copyright © 2017. Published by The Philanthropy Roundtable. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Karl Zinsmeister
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  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Sat, 03/10/2018 10:32 am

    Thanks for the very encouraging stories.  I hope that in heaven we will be able to hear millions of similar stories of the positive effects of personal giving motivated by Christ's teaching to love our neighbors.  

  • Janet B
    Posted: Sat, 03/10/2018 02:27 pm

    How fun to read about Stephen Girard's other philanthropical acts.  He endowned the school for orphaned and fatherless boys that my step-dad attended after his father died when he was 6.  Girard College is still helping boys today.


  • news2me
    Posted: Sat, 03/10/2018 05:09 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article. Lots of historical info I did not know. 

    Will charitable giving be smaller now that the gov't has made the tax write-off too large?