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Jeff Cain’s June 21st post on the Giving USA 2011 report notes the continued rise in charitable giving to international affairs organizations:

Another number that jumps off the page is the estimated 15.3 percent rise in contributions to international affairs organizations (following a 2.9 percent rise in 2009). When this number is compared with a 1.5 percent decline in giving to human services (which I take to be giving mostly to domestic, local, and regional organizations), one wonders why Americans and especially American foundations are sending more of their money abroad during the economic downturn, especially when there is greater demand for social services here at home. Are we seeing a shift in the overall distribution of philanthropic resources with America’s charitable dollars, like its jobs and its armies, migrating overseas: another shade of globalization?

Giving to distant others while neglecting the needs of those near-at-hand is sometimes termed “telescopic philanthropy,” a phrase coined by Charles Dickens in his treatment of character of Mrs. Jellyby in his classic Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby is a telescopic philanthropist who neglects her own family and directs all her care to promote, as she sees it, the betterment of Africans. To the extent that she cares about her fellow Englishman, it is only to encourage the “superabundant home population” to ship off to Africa where they would cultivate coffee beans. Too busy promoting her African schemes and discoursing on the Brotherhood of Humanity, she cannot hear her young son’s cries as he tumbles down the stairs.

What are we to make of American’s turn to telescopic philanthropy during a period of hardships unseen for two generations?

The Great Recession may have turned Americans’ attentions abroad for at least two reasons. First, it has made clear how truly global the economy has become. This month Americans are led to understand that the interest rates their households will pay on their debts depends somehow on whether or not the Greek government is able to pay its debts. More and more, Americans are forced to attend to affairs abroad. Once they’ve turned more of their attention to international affairs, it’s not surprising that they then direct more of their charitable giving to international affairs organizations.

But a second, perhaps more likely, reason that Americans are increasing turning to telescopic philanthropy is that they feel that the government has taken the place of private charities to provide for Americans in need. When governments are spending unprecedented amounts to extend unemployment benefits to ninety-nine weeks and to undertake large stimulus projects, the message to Americans is that the government will provide. At least some Americans may be concluding that their charitable gifts are less needed by local human service organizations.

Declining patronage of human service organizations should worry not only those who rely on those organizations’ services but everyone concerned about American civic life. As the nineteenth century observer of American society Alexis de Tocqueville noted, the multiplicity of American associations not only meets immediate needs but staves off encroachments on the people’s freedom by the government. When local human service organizations lose the patronage of their local communities and government steps in to meet needs previously met by these organizations, Tocqueville would warn that civic life is undermined:

The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and its industry if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere.

Let’s hope that next year’s report shows rising support of human service organizations—not just for those who need their services during these hard times but for the sake of our democratic civic culture.

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