April 10, 2024
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Philanthropy is a quintessential American value


Sabith Khan

By Sabith Khan

In the more than six years that I have studied faith-based philanthropy through nonprofit and individual action, I have been amazed at the wide-ranging areas that it reaches. Especially now, with Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath in Texas and Irma wreaking havoc across Florida and the Caribbean, faith-based organizations are increasingly stepping up to the plate.

The question I have tried to answer is how can faith-based philanthropy help build stronger and more resilient communities?

Whether it is St. Bernard Project, Samaritan’s Purse, Islamic Relief or Catholic Charities, FBOs are increasingly well-represented in the relief efforts following Hurricane Harvey. Charity Navigator, a respected agency that assesses nonprofits for their efficient and appropriate use of funds, has ranked these FBOs quite highly. Local nongovernmental organizations are partnering with national, and in some cases international, nongovernmental organizations to offer assistance and comfort to distressed Texans.

Religious philanthropic giving represents about one-third of the about $390 billion in annual American donations, an estimate that has been well documented by Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy.

The latest Giving USA report points out that individual giving across all nine categories has increased. These categories are religion, education, human services, giving to foundations, health, public-society benefit, arts, culture and humanities, international affairs, and environment and animals.

The trend over the decades has been one of a decreasing proportion of giving overall toward religion, given that fewer people are attending church or other religious services. However, this trend tends to change when there is a natural disaster. Americans of all stripes then come together to do more, both in terms of volunteering and also pulling out their wallets to make cash donations.

An increase in awareness of international disasters and in technology-aided giving have helped fuel donations to FBOs engaged in relief efforts.

It must be emphasized, for reasons of clarity, that FBOs cannot replace government funding —which is much bigger both in magnitude and reach. The work of these faith-led organizations is crucial, even as an initial bandage. More importantly, they serve as a healing touch at a time when people are recovering from calamities, whether loss of life, property or other material goods.

In my research, I have found philanthropy to be the most American of values, given that more Americans donate to charity than even vote or go to church on a regular basis. In other words, philanthropy can be considered the quintessential American value.

Given the divisive times we live in, giving money to causes and issues that affect all Americans regardless of race, religion and ethnic origin may be a way of bringing people together. Indeed, this is one of my findings that I plan to expand on in my next book.

I also came across a story that showcased how more than 25 Islamic centers registered as nonprofits in Texas opened their doors unconditionally to all those who needed shelter in the Houston area. This move comes at a time when Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are at an all-time high in the United States.

This action, though seemingly short-term, can hopefully be one that can lead more people to reach out to others who are not like themselves.

Bringing people together is one of most significant roles that FBOs can play. However, there needs to be a note of caution for them to succeed: As agents of promoting higher values of compassion and concern for other human beings, it is imperative that FBOs remain above partisan and denominational concerns.

• Sabith Khan is an assistant professor in the School of Management at California Lutheran University. He earned a doctorate in planning, governance and globalization from Virginia Tech.