Making sense of the little black dots below: what The Generosity Commission unwittingly teaches us about itself 

Nov 27, 2023

Time and money. The bottom and the top.

The Generosity Commission is a self-appointed, nondemocratic, and publicly unaccountable group of philanthropic elites vexed by the decline in charitable giving and volunteerism among average Americans. 

Organized in 2021 under the auspices of the Giving USA Foundation and funded by America’s wealthiest foundations, charitable investment banks, and for-profit fundraising and charitable-data corporations, the Commission plans to issue a report in 2024 with recommendations on how average Americans can give and do more. 

Twenty million families stopped giving to government-sanctioned nonprofit organizations from 2000 to 2016, the Commission laments. Volunteerism hit a 15-year low in 2015. These retreats coincide with a broad decline of trust in public institutions, including in charitable organizations. As Commission co-chair and Aspen Institute vice president Jane Wales notes, “trust is at an all-time low.” 

Looking down from high atop America’s system of tax-incentivized charitable giving, civil society appears to The Generosity Commission elites to be in shambles. “The current trust deficit,” Wales continues, “corresponds with an almost 50-year decline in social ‘connectedness’ and the social capital Americans built.” 

What’s wrong with Americans? Why have they become less generous and less giving of their time? Why have they lost trust in the system of tax-incentivized charitable giving upon which The Generosity Commissioners sit? 

Elevation often affords a better view, but distorts details on the ground the higher one climbs: at a certain height, people below become difficult to see; they begin to look like little black dots. America’s elites have risen so high for so long, they cannot see why the distant little black dots below aren’t behaving like they used to. 

To understand how and why things have changed, The Generosity Commission set out to interview, sort, study, collate, randomize, regress, analyze, dissect, convene, and report on the little black dots below. What could average Americans possibly be doing with their time and treasure? Why have they grown estranged from America’s system of tax-incentivized charitable giving? 

America’s two giving cultures 

To answer these questions, the Commission did what so-called blue-ribbon commissions always do: requisitioned studies from their peers, friends, and colleagues working at institutions funded by the same donors that financed the Commission and operating under the same assumptions as the commissioners. 

All of the Commission’s researchers in one way or another depend upon charitable dollars to fund their activities, including dollars from The Generosity Commission. To put it another way, all of the researchers start their research at least partially compromised. In other academic fields, this is called a conflict of interest. In elite philanthropic culture, it’s de rigueur

This selection process guarantees status quo outcomes. The institutions working on behalf of The Generosity Commission thus includes the usual suspects: the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society; the Urban Institutethe University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & PracticeHattaway Communications; the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute.  

Most of the studies are now complete. Each report approaches the little black dots below—average Americans—from a novel research perspective. Yet, what they tell us from high atop their institutional perches already appears in the field’s vast archives of prior reports, studies, surveys, white papers, books, listening sessions, charrettes, convenings, and podcasts: 

Well-educated, monied Americans from intact families donate and volunteer at higher rates than those from less-exceptional backgrounds; older people give more than younger people; giving is concentrating toward top incomes; the way Americans give seems to be changing around the margins; most Americans don’t know much about the laws, regulations, and special privileges associated with tax-incentivized charitable giving; Americans helped each other during the pandemic and genuinely care for their neighbors; local giving trumps giving globally; religion is important; reporting on philanthropy focuses on the top one percent of celebrity donors, not everyday givers; etc.

The reports’ value is not in their findings. It’s rather in what they reveal about the great divide between elite institutional philanthropic culture and how everyday Americans give. Indeed, there may not be a better illustration than The Generosity Commission’s own methods, tools, and presuppositions about the self-evident goodness of their processes, that shows the stark divide between America’s two disparate giving cultures.

Why, one wonders, does The Generosity Commission begin with the assumption that the giving and volunteering habits of average Americans have grown faulty—less generous—and require the Commission’s examination? After all, the Commission announces on its website that “generosity is a part of who we are. It has less to do with the assets we possess than the empathy we feel.” Giving, the Commission seems to say, is not contingent on how much we give. Yet, dissecting, quantifying, and analyzing the giving of average Americans is precisely the work product of the Commission. 

In reaction to declining rates of giving and volunteerism, The Generosity Commission instinctively turns its gaze to average Americans. It doesn’t look inward toward the self-serving charitable giving laws, tax-privileges, and elite philanthropic gatekeeping culture that benefits the Commission and its funders and excludes average Americans. That the institution of tax-incentivized charitable giving may be a contributor to the problem never seems to occur to the commissioners. 

With its tranche of studies, The Generosity Commission has dug a deep moat around its elite philanthropic fortress insulating it from inquiry into its own culpability in the popular decline of trust in America’s charitable institutions. 

The unmoved movers of The Generosity Commission 

Americans tend to sort themselves socioeconomically. The best-educated and most-affluent flock to coastal cities: the epicenters of tax-incentivized Big Philanthropy. America’s two giving cultures thus don’t often interact: each knows little about other. 

What’s immediately striking about the body of reports produced so far by The Generosity Commission is the foreignness that average American life holds for the Commission’s researchers. Their work often reads like Franz Boaz’s first contact with the Inuit of Baffin Island in 1883. 

In How We Give Now: Conversations Across the United States, for example, Lucy Bernholz is taken aback that Americans do not often talk about how they give. She finds Americans lack of speaking openly and often about their giving enigmatic: 

There’s a paradox here. People are generous with their time and money. They give to charities, politics, friends, families, and strangers. … So, even while there is active participation, including in ways that signal generosity, it’s unusual for people to talk about their giving. 

Average Americans hew to an older understanding of charity long ago abandoned by the philanthropic professional class as retrograde. Giving laden with an expectation of reward or acclaim is self-interested and therefore not an act of generosity; such calculated “giving” is not a virtue. There’s no paradox here: generosity for most Americans is an act of charity—giving to another without the expectation of something in return. 

Most Americans don’t require their generosity to be discounted with a tax deduction or memorialized with their name emblazoned on the side of a building in perpetuity. That Bernholz is surprised by this is fascinating. It unwittingly reveals the great chasm between the assumptions of the philanthropic professional class and average American givers, between philanthropy and charity.

Bernholz’s aloofness helps to put The Generosity Commission and its reports into context. America’s philanthropic professional class genuinely doesn’t know why Americans aren’t giving and volunteering more. Elite culture is simply too far removed from what most Americans experience to know first-hand why most Americans are struggling. 

To ask in the year 2021, as The Generosity Commission has, why Americans aren’t giving away more of their time and treasure, is to betray a gross lack of understanding, not to mention empathy, regarding how most Americans live. The question is pregnant with the insult, the condescension; it fosters the very distrust in institutional leadership that aggravates The Generosity Commission. The obliviousness of the Commission is palpable in its questions, methods, and reports.  

Wither American time and treasure?

Americans have not grown less generous; they have less money and time to give. Fifty years of extreme income inequality has left most Americans with less treasure. A 2020 Rand Corporation study affirmed what most Americans experience daily. During the 43-year period from 1975 to 2018, a total of $47 trillion dollars migrated from the bottom 99% to the top 1%. 

In 1975, workers in the 25th percentile earned on average $28,000 annually. Forty-three years later, those same workers took home $33,000: a mere increase of $5,000 over a 43-year period! Workers in the 99th percentile, on the other hand, saw their incomes swell during the same period, by $761,000 to $1,384,000, or more than 300% of the economic growth rate.

Economic inequality during the past 50 years gutted America’s middle class. Most Americans don’t need a Rand Corporation study to tell them this. They live it, paycheck to paycheck. It’s witnessed in blue-tarped homeless camps along our highways and byways. Our landscape further narrates the loss in the proliferation of race-to-the-bottom discount big-box retailers, payday lenders, and dollar stores. One in five Americans buys their groceries at one of the 35,000 discount or dollar merchants littered across our American homeland.

Adding insult to injury, these same Americans have been nickeled and dimed with fees and penalties by the too-big-to-fail financial institutions they bailed out during The Great Recession. In 2019, for example, banks with more than $1 billion in assets harvested $11 billion in overdraft fees alone from working American’s checking accounts. When smaller banks are included, the figure swells to $15.5 billion. “The large majority of these fees,” the Center for Responsible Lending reports, “are shouldered by banks’ most vulnerable customers, often driving them out of the banking system altogether.” 

With less money in their pockets, Americans have not found more time on their hands. To the contrary: they work more hours than workers in other developed countries. On average, they put in 400 more hours per year than their German counterparts, the equivalent of 10 more work weeks annually. They’re also spending more time commuting than ever. The average American commuter spends over 51 hours waiting in traffic annually. In 1982, the figure was 18 hours. 

Visits to the doctor have also become an exercise in waiting. One study estimates that the economic impact of time spent on travel and waiting for health-care services was nearly $1 trillion over the last decade, an average of about $89 billion a year. With six in 10 Americans suffering from at least one chronic disease and a well-documented systemic shortage of medical professionals, average Americans without elite concierge health-care options will spend a lot more of their time waiting in health-center lobbies in the future. 

Success to the successful 

Why are the distant little black dots below behaving differently? Why are average Americans giving and volunteering less? They have less time and money to give. Period.

The extraordinary thing about American generosity is not that it has declined, it’s that anyone outside of the top one percent of income earners is giving and volunteering at all. Americans haven’t become less generous; they’ve become poorer—in money and time.

How remarkable that The Generosity Commission doesn’t see that the relative generosity of average of Americans is not the cause of decline in giving and volunteerism. It’s as though the Commission has set out to purposefully sow the seeds of self-doubt among average Americans, denying their economic reality and the 50-year hollowing out of America’s middle class, while enshrining and celebrating its own authority.   

America over the past 50 years put in place an economic and philanthropic system that has been extraordinarily effective in delivering success to the successful. In doing so, some have risen to great heights, but many, many more have fallen. The Generosity Commission unwittingly illustrates what separates the bottom from the top. The Commission’s obtuseness regarding fellow Americans curates the very institutional distrust it set out to overcome, but it has risen too high to realize that.