A Gospel of Giving


I recently received a letter via philanthropist David Rubenstein, “composed” by Andrew Carnegie. It instructed me to “remind everyone that charitable giving is something anyone can do — and everyone should do.”

The importance of the subject, the author and the timing compel me to respond. This Thanksgiving comes the day after Carnegie’s birthday, 180 years ago. And while there has been a spate of bad news worldwide of late, I want him to know that there is good news too, especially when it comes to Americans helping each other. This would gratify the author of the famous “Gospel of Wealth,” who proposed that with wealth comes the responsibility to reinvest in one’s society and humanity, and that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

With these thoughts in mind, I have composed my reply:

“Dear Mr. Carnegie: I am pleased to report that in the United States, where you arrived as an immigrant in 1848, philanthropy is flourishing.

“Since your time, American philanthropy has established universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, orchestras and theaters; it has supported scientific research and academic fellowships; funded libraries and museums; fed people who were hungry and built houses for them. We have today nearly 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, which underscores the strength of our democracy, as well as our common bonds and common interests.

“Your example of openhearted giving is alive and well at every level of our society. In 2014, Americans gave a record $358.38 billion to charity. The largest source of giving — 72% — came from individuals, followed by foundations, then bequests, with corporations lagging behind (5%).

“It isn’t just the wealthy. Middle- and lower-income Americans donated a greater share of income even as they earned less, on average, than in prior years. In addition, time is money: In 2013, 62.6 million Americans volunteered nearly 7.7 billion hours valued at nearly $173 billion.

“These wide-ranging philanthropic efforts speak to the strength of our nation and the empathy of our citizens. They highlight the fact that, as a people, we are interdependent. We support and fight for each other’s freedoms but also lend a helping hand when needed, qualities inherent in American life from the start.

“Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the early 1830s, ‘willingly sacrifice a portion of their time and property’ to improve the welfare of their fellow men and women. The fact that Americans were committed both to advancing the welfare of their families and their communities was a testament to the strength of our democracy, which could support the common good while making room for individual achievement.

“Nearly two centuries later, Pope Francis reminded us that we are all each other’s keepers, and that ‘Humanity has the ability to work together in building our common home.’ He urged us to remember how, in giving, we are the ones who truly receive.

“I know you, Mr. Carnegie, would have agreed with these sentiments, as would a man you admired, Adam Smith. While you were both unabashed capitalists who favored free markets, it was Smith as moral philosopher who theorized that man is driven by passionate self-interest moderated by his intellect and innate sympathy for others. He saw that individualism and capitalism would go hand in hand.

“Now, in this holiday season, it is time to reread your ‘Gospel of Wealth.’ Wealth is something we all have: If not monetary riches, we have our time, our love of family and many ways that we can be generous with our efforts.”

And so I conclude my reply. If Andrew Carnegie were alive today, I’m sure he would celebrate all the ways in which Americans give of ourselves to lift up our fellow citizens and enrich the noble aspirations of our democracy. For remember, we may not be a perfect nation, but we are always perfectible. On behalf of Mr. Carnegie, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving — and happy giving.

This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News