Charity Truly Begins at Home

12/21/2009 12:01 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

America has been one of the most generous nations in history, when you compile all the giving we’ve done as a nation, especially since World War II. But it’s not just our government’s generosity with Americans’ tax dollars that gives us the title of most generous nation. It’s individual giving—to registered charities, to family and friends, and even to strangers—that makes Americans unique. 

In 2006, Americans gave $295 billion in tax-deductible contributions to charities. And that does not measure the gifts of cash, volunteered time, or support of family members.  

So far, at least, the recession has not dented our generosity. A study released by the Rand Corporation this past August showed that 30% of American households gave $500 or more to friends or family.

Even among those who were struggling themselves, 29% came to the aid of others. And it’s not just about giving money; despite the brewing recession, more people volunteered in 2008 than in 2007.

But the need is growing faster than our generosity. There is not a homeless shelter or food bank that isn’t feeling the pinch. With 10% of our population unemployed, but anxiously looking for work, you won’t have to look far among your family, friends, or neighbors to find someone in need–or trying to hide that need.

This is sadly reminiscent of the books I read about the Depression era, where wandering strangers offered to do a day’s work just for food. That’s the stuff of history—but it’s also the reality for too many families today.  

The lessons of the Depression changed Americans for generations. I can still hear my grandmother telling me to put a little away in a “pushke”—savings for emergencies or tough times.

Unfortunately, those lessons have been mostly forgotten. Now they’ll be re-learned by a new generation. It’s the old Savage Truth: “The Lessons that Cost the Most, Teach the Most!”  

Prosperity will return slowly, since we cannot count on each other to spend our way out of this slowdown. So, the next round of economic growth—and there will be a next round—will be built on something more substantial than consumer spending. Most likely it will be led by some technological innovation.

But in the meantime, those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs, warm homes, and savings to tide us through this slowdown should each find it in our heart to look beyond our own security to those who need help the most. 

Yes, you pay with your tax dollars. Now, each of us needs to find one person, one family, one local organization—and reach out with a special generosity, of time as well as money, during this holiday season.

Surely you have some ideas of worthwhile organizations for those who can’t find a good outlet for their instinctive generosity. And remember, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you cared enough to read to the end of this blog, get out your checkbook, get out of the office, and give.

Do you have an experience with charity or volunteer work you’d like to share? Please post a comment.

And happy holidays to you and your loved ones!

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