News & Views from 465 California Street


Clint Reilly

Bill Clinton has written a new book, GIVING, about “the explosion of private citizens doing public good.” Environmentalist Paul Hawken‘s book, BLESSED UNREST, chronicles a nonpartisan humanitarian movement comprising tens of millions of citizen activists spanning every continent. Citizens no longer depend purely on government to solve social problems. Even the trendy new moniker given to non profits – NGO’s – stands for Non-Governmental Organizations. In Europe, high tax rates heavily discouraged private giving. Europeans feared they would tacitly permit government to curtail its social agenda by donating to private charities which duplicated the state’s cradle-to-grave responsibilities. However, in the United States a tradition of giving has prevailed since the founding of the republic. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, observed in the 1830’s, “I must say that Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare, and I have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend faithful support to one another.”

Every day, millions of Americans donate time or money to more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations. Donations to America’s nonprofit organizations totaled 260 billion dollars in 2005. More than 80% of contributions were from individuals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics asserts that 64.5 million Americans have volunteered their time to assist a nonprofit organization at least one time per year.

There is also a long tradition in our country for entrepreneurs to voluntarily give back a portion of their wealth to benefit the common good. In 2007 alone, United States foundations will contribute 37 billion dollars to programs aimed at improving life for Americans and the global human family. The Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie Foundations are named for the industrialists who dominated oil, cars and steel. These foundations have grown into huge war chests advocating reforms that might cause John D. and Henry and Andrew to roll over in their graves. Billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have donated more than fifty billion dollars between them. Here in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs William Hewlett and David Packard, the legendary founders of Hewlett Packard, both established foundations that have had a profound impact. Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, established the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, whose 5.6 billion dollars in assets has funded projects as disparate as saving Alaska Salmon to cleaning up the Salt Flats in the San Francisco Bay. Wayne Valley, an East Bay builder who was an original partner of the Oakland Raiders, left a foundation that has funded schools, hospitals and churches long after his death in 1986.

Faith-based nonprofits are replacing government as a key provider of emergency social services. As both Republicans and Democrats have come to a consensus that government is not the most efficient or effective provider of human services, faith-based nonprofits have been recruited to do the job. For instance, Catholic Charities CYO in Marin and San Mateo counties operates Meals on Wheels, a food and nutrition service for homebound seniors. CCCYO also runs a day care facility for Alzheimer patients in San Mateo. CCCYO programs serve over 40, 000 per year with a budget of 36 million dollars, supported by government grants, fees for service and more than seven million dollars in thousands of voluntary contributions.

The surging growth of volunteerism and voluntary giving now competes with political action as the primary way of making a difference. Frustrated with the slow pace of change, more Americans than ever are taking direct action. However, as former President Clinton reminds us in his book GIVING, “Government matters. That’s why one of the most important ways of giving time, money, knowledge and skills can be in an effort to change, improve or protect a government policy”. The lesson to be learned from the myriad ways people have found to improve life on the planet is underlined by the title of Bill Clinton’s book, GIVING – HOW EACH OF US CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.

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