In the second verse of Rodney Atkins’s country hit “It’s America,” he sings:
Later on when I got home, I flipped the TV on/ I saw a little town that some big twister tore apart/ And people came from miles around just to help their neighbors out/ And I was thinkin’ to myself, I’m so glad that I live in America.
Atkins is not the first to notice the abundance of American charity. Writing in the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville descried: “Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” Unlike the cases abroad, Tocqueville realized that an ethic of voluntarism guides the American spirit toward charitable endeavors.
More recently (in 2008), Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute labeled the United States “A Nation of Givers.” Similarly approaching this topic comparatively, Brooks wrote:
No developed country approaches American giving. For example, in 1995 . . . Americans gave, per capita, three and a half times as much to causes and charities as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians. . . . If we look at two people who are identical in all these ways [i.e., in terms of education, income, age, sex, or marital status] except that one is European and the other American, the probability is still far lower that the European will volunteer than the American.
But is all this changing? After all, Philanthropy Daily reported just last month that the U.S. was ranked ninth in the percentage of its population donating to charity.
Not quite. While, yes, the U.S. is “only” in ninth place in terms of donations, there is still cause for celebration. Taking a closer look at the Charities Aid Foundation’s report, the U.S. is still in first place with their overall World Giving Index ranking (tied with Myanmar, and followed by Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand to round out the top five). While in ninth place for donating money, the U.S. is in fifth for the number of citizens who volunteer, and in first place for the number who have reported helping a stranger. In fact, even in the ninth place donations category, the U.S. saw at least a three-point increase since the previous year’s survey (up from last year’s rank of 13; see Appendix 4).
Despite the good news for the U.S. (that is, leading, maintaining, or going up in every category in the report), commentators have somehow managed to disproportionately headline the ninth place award rather than the pair of first places: the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s piece on the World Giving Index led “United States Ranks 9th in the World in Giving to Charity” and Nonprofit Quarterly headlined “The 2014 World Giving Index Findings Ranks US in 9th Place for Donations.” Even yesterday’s blog by Marc Joseph at the Huffington Post neglected to use this year’s better-looking figures.
While it is possible to critique CAF’s methodology (e.g., while there is no issue at all with Gallup’s World Poll methods, one could argue that cultural factors may bias survey responses dis-similarly across nations, etc.), it is rather difficult to dismiss the study’s results as anything but positive for the United States. As Ted Hart, CEO of CAF-America, was quoted at CNBC, “It’s easy to discount the fact that we’re No. 1, because we expected to be.” Perhaps due to that expectation, those in the philanthropy have been drawn to the few areas of imperfection.
Later on in his song, Atkins sings: “Now we might not always get it all right / There’s no place else I’d rather build my life.” And he’s not wrong. Maybe we don’t get it all right – but in terms of charity, the U.S. remains exceptional when compared to global philanthropic norms.