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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 May 2006, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
Washington diary: Culture of giving
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

It is easy for stingy foreigners, myself included, to underestimate the culture of philanthropy and fundraising in the United States.

Soon after one of my daughters started going to a private school in Washington, I received a call from a mother of one of her classmates.

National Air and Space Museum, the Smithsonian
An initial donation helped create one of the greatest museums
There was the usual friendly, non-committal chit-chat, after which I moved swiftly to the subject in hand.

"Yes, my daughter would love a play date," I said, assuming - wrongly, as it turned out - that this was the purpose of the call.

"We were actually looking for some help with our scholarship fund. We are still half a million dollars short of our target!"

A lump formed in my throat, immediately followed by huge relief that the caller had clearly got the wrong parent, since we do not - unfortunately - have half a million bucks to give away.

"Any donation would be appreciated," came the reply to my unspoken thoughts, "however small!"

Worth of a 'friend'

There was the challenge. What exactly is the price of self-esteem? Reputation? A good deed?

As my mind raced through all the possibilities of humiliation, the mother threw me a lifeline.

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie kick-started US philanthropy in the 19th Century
"It's all on the web! I can call you back at the same time tomorrow!"

Phew... no need to make excuses about misplaced credit cards and empty cheque books.

The web spelled it out. Donations from $1 to $500 earned you the accolade of "friend".

Not bad. But there were six other categories, and everything over $10,000 turned you into a "millennium donor", a stellar title which came with the embossing of your name on a plaque.

So in the school's fundraising code, "friend" was the equivalent of "lunch" in that infamous phrase: "Let's do lunch one of these days!"

Concrete charity

Once a year it is possible to witness this generosity "live" in the form of the school auction.

Hundreds of parents meet in a fancy Washington hotel, chase some surf and turf around a plate, and bid for everything from holiday homes donated by wealthy parents to paintings or pottery made by their own children.

Bill and Melinda Gates
Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife have given billions away
The item that took my breath away was the family handprint on a slab of wet concrete outside the school gates.

It went for $24,000.

The man sitting next to me helped out: "Don't worry, Matt. Everything over value can be deducted from tax. And the value of a slab of concrete is probably $20."

Americans give to schools, hospitals, libraries, galleries and the poor like no other country in the world.

Last year, American citizens gave more money to victims of the tsunami than their government did.

Cornerstone of culture

Yes, charity can be written off against tax, but it is also hard-wired into the psyche of a nation founded by pilgrims and enriched by private enterprise.

It is impossible to imagine modern America without philanthropy, because so many of the institutions funded by the state in Europe are financed by private citizens in this country.

Ted Turner
I'm still giving it away - it's not as if I'm missing any meals or anything
Ted Turner

The Metropolitan Opera House in New York would not exist without philanthropy. Nor would the Museum of Modern Art or the New York Public Library.

In Washington, 16 of the nation's greatest museums are free because of the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1829, James Smithson, an English scientist, left his fortune to his nephew but stipulated that if the nephew died without children (legitimate or illegitimate) "the money should go the United States of America to found at Washington an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men".

Thankfully, Smithson's nephew died childless, and the seed money has been invested and supplemented to produce one of the greatest cultural foundations in the world.

Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born steel magnate who became the father of modern philanthropy, not only gave his name to one of the most famous concert halls in the US, as well as dozens of other theatres, he also funded thousands of public libraries all over America.

It was he who once quipped: "He who dies rich, dies disgraced."

Others have followed suit. Bill and Melinda Gates have already spent $30bn of their money on good causes.

Every year their foundation gives more to global health causes like malaria, TB and Aids than the World Health Organization.

Thanks a billion

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN who sports a pencil moustache and calls the actress Jane Fonda "my favourite ex-wife", famously gave $1bn to the UN, because his own country would not pay its dues.

"Why a billion?" I asked him. "Nice round figure!" he told me.

The money is doled out over 10 years in lots of $100m, and Mr Turner keeps on giving even though he also sustained the biggest personal loss ever in financial history.

After the Time-AOL merger and the bursting of the dot.com bubble, Ted - as he insists on being called - lost more than $6bn.

"I sure took a hit," he said in a recent interview. "But I'm still giving it away. It's not as if I'm missing any meals or anything."

Philanthropy is so well established it has spawned its own academic discipline.

New York University has a department of philanthropy. There is also the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

I have even attended a philanthropy workshop in the bowels of Congress, where rich Americans learned how to give their money away and how to make sure it was spent on the right causes.

Whether it is the quest for a legacy, the desire to change the world, the determination not to spoil one's children or simply the tax code, Americans - wealthy and not so wealthy - are giving their dollars away by the lorry load.

And the rest of the world has a long way to catch up.

Matt Frei's The Embarrassment of Riches will be broadcast on 19 May at 1100 BST (1000 GMT) on BBC Radio 4.

Do you agree with Matt Frei? Can others learn from the US culture of giving? What role should charity play in modern life?


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