Caroline Fiennes: When you check it out, the giving culture in the US is not all that it seems

Comparisons often overlook where charitable funds in that country actually go, writes our columnist

Caroline Fiennes
Caroline Fiennes

In February, Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, made the largest- ever single gift to a US hospital - $75m (£49m) to a San Francisco institution. We often hear that the charitable sector in the UK should emulate the giving culture in the US. Well, we should be careful what we wish for: it's far from clear that this would be of any help at all.

Most obviously, the UK and the US are very different countries. Perhaps the comparison arises only because we more or less share a latitude and more or less share a language. Although US giving per capita looks higher, it's counting something completely different.

For example, in upstate New York I was amazed to see a road sign saying that the next three miles of highway were being cleaned "courtesy of the Rotary Club". By contrast, the vast majority of roads in the UK are cleaned courtesy of central and local government, funded by the taxpayer, whether there is a local Rotary Club or not.

In the US, the funds made available for that road cleaning count as charitable giving, whereas the money "given" to the taxman to clean UK highways does not. This does not show that the US is more generous, just that it allocates tasks differently between the state and private citizens. By the same token, charitable giving looks low in Scandinavia and France, though nobody would sensibly claim that these are thus ungenerous nations.

The comparison with the US overlooks where charitable funds in that country actually go. Years ago, I read an analysis of US charitable giving to churches, synagogues, universities and so on. It called them "communities of which the donor is a member", giving to which accounted for almost all the per-capita differences between US and UK giving.

It's clear that US elite institutions receive a good deal: the endowments of Harvard University ($32bn), Yale University ($20bn) and Stanford ($18bn) are testament to that. By comparison, Oxford University's endowment is about $6bn.

Less striking is the effect of that on the poor: the literary and cultural commentary magazine The Atlantic recently reported that of the 50 largest individual gifts to US charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions that mainly serve the elite; nine went to museums and arts organisations, and the rest went to medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. "Not one went to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed," the magazine said.

Similarly, much US giving goes to addressing problems that the UK doesn't have. Schools in the US are funded locally by property taxes, based on property values, so schools in poor areas get much less per child than schools in expensive areas. The director of a large US community foundation told me about its expensive campaign to get equal funding for every child in his city's public schools. Donors in the UK don't have to lobby for that because school funding here works quite differently.

Clearly, the US can teach us some things, but not everything. After all, the country where the greatest number of people give regularly is even more different. It's Myanmar.

Caroline Fiennes is director of Giving Evidence and author of It Ain't What You Give

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