As we celebrate our nation’s 241st birthday and our city’s 268th, I think back to a column I wrote in 2014 about two of our country’s earliest, and perhaps greatest, philanthropists—George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. In addition to being the Father of the Country, Washington was known for his charitable giving particularly to the poor, the parentless and to higher education. As noted in a piece by the Philanthropic Roundtable, George Washington would regularly provide food to those imprisoned for debt in addition to making “hundreds of donations to churches and charities, many of which were given under the condition of anonymity.” He truly lived by the credo of “never let an indigent person ask without receiving something if you have the means.” He was also known for his support of what is now Washington and Lee University and of Historic Christ Church on North Washington Street.
In much the same way, I noted how Benjamin Franklin supported many individuals and public entities. He is remembered for his gift to the Pennsylvania Hospital and his challenge to others to match this gift. And while remembered for many things today, his bequests to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia upon his death, are noteworthy in setting a standard for the continued betterment of society through philanthropy. These gifts, in particular, may have set the standard for the formation of charitable giving organizations like ACT for Alexandria and other community foundations nationwide although it would take until the early 20th century for their formal establishment.
Looking forward from their amazing lives, I wonder what they would think of our country now. And while purposely avoiding the politics of today, I wonder how they would feel about the culture of giving which has developed in these past two centuries and a half. I can’t help but believe they would find the day to day concern for others, the desire to help those less fortunate and the caring exhibited by most Americans both heartwarming and fulfilling relative to the dreams they had for this new experiment they were instrumental in launching.
According to “Giving USA”, Americans gave $390 Billion in 2016—a historic high and up from $352.5Billion just ten years earlier. But, as noted in the most recent issue of “The Chronicle of Philanthropy”, each year is a challenge and “uncertainty is the watchword for 2017”, due to factors related to the national political climate, potential tax code changes, geopolitical events, and the economy. While some of the indicators are promising, the uncertainty existing in our country today causes pause when trying to make predictions of this sort, particularly in the realm of charitable giving.
At the same time, this uncertainty could be an impetus to spur charitable giving and engagement to new heights as we, as a country and a community, seem to come together in times of need. You don’t have to look back too far to note the outpouring of caring, concern and willingness to help than the tragic shooting at Simpson Field which not only brought together a wide-range of concerned citizens in support of the injured and the first responders at the time, but also brought a sense of community to our city—binding us more closely together to both resist the hate which resulted in this act but also to look at one another in a bit more of a compassionate way.
The challenge is to keep this feeling—this sincere caring for others around us—ever present in our minds and actions. The tendency is for time to remove us a bit more from tragedies like this, which may be helpful in a healing way, but harmful in that the return to the hustle and bustle of daily life sometimes provides permission to remove ourselves a bit more from that sense of community, that concern we display for others.
As summer passes, please remember those moments when we’ve come together in the past and pledge to daily think not just of ourselves, but those many others around us, particularly to those less fortunate, those in need and for whom we may be able to help—even in a small way. Let’s make 2017 a year of certainty in doing what is right for ourselves, our community and our country. I believe Washington and Franklin would be proud of where we’ve come, if we do.
By John Porter, ACT President and CEO
Special thanks to the Alexandria Times for publishing John's monthly column.