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I've been thinking about ... philanthropy

Of all the things that make America exceptional, our nonprofit organizations may be the most interesting. That sector of our economy is now 6 percent of gross domestic product and accounts for 11 percent of the total United States workforce. If you take into consideration our volunteers, and depending on how you count them, you are talking about between 4 million and 10 million full-time employees. The United States charitable sector passed the national defense sector in 1993 and it continues to grow.

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Philanthropy is clearly a huge force in our society. What is even more interesting is the breakdown of who is giving and how much. Only 14 percent of charitable giving in this country comes from foundations and only 5 percent comes from corporations.

The rest — the bulk of it — comes from gifts from people, our friends and neighbors, who never fail to respond to needs in our community. These gifts amount to about $2,500 annually per family.

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However, If you consider that many parks, environmental projects, medical and scientific research and facilities, our great universities, cathedrals, schools of music and art, concert halls, museums, libraries and hospitals were started and fostered to this day by private gifts, you get a sense of the magnitude and importance of individual giving to the health and well-being of our daily lives.

I found these facts in an excellent article by Karl Zinsmeister entitled "Charitable Giving and the Fabric of America" published this year in Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College in Michigan. While I appreciate the broad picture, I am always more interested in what is happening in front of me.

Did you know that there are over 300 registered nonprofit organizations just in Carroll County?

I think this is what Zinsmeister means when he talks about the "fabric" of a community. Private philanthropy tends to be individualized, relying on one to one accountability and the power of personal transactions.

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It is hard to imagine Carroll County without the good works of our nonprofit organizations. Can we really measure the value of Human Services of Carroll County, The Shepherd's Staff, NESAP, RCIS, Family and Children's Services, The Literacy Council, September Song, Foolproof, The Westminster Municipal Band, Carroll Singers, Access Carroll, Mission of Mercy, Masterworks Choral, The Westminster Boys and Girls Club, Carroll Hospice, 4-H, The Children's Chorus of Carroll County, the drug treatment court, Waste Not Carroll, the Historical Society of Carroll County, the ICAN Foundation, the Humane Society of Carroll County and on and on.

You can look at annual reports and glean some information from the numbers reported but do you really think you can measure the value of a child having a safe place to go after school when parents are still at work? Or the developing of a talent in an after school program? Or a safe haven for the victim of domestic violence? I don't think so.

All these thoughts bubble up every year when I start work on the Community Foundation's annual report. The numbers are good again this year — $2,173,244 in grants, scholarships, direct assistance to individuals and programs. But remember, we are only one charity among many that are working in this community. The idea of all these charities working for the good of our community fills my heart with gratitude that I have a job that matters.

Audrey Cimino is executive director of The Community Foundation of Carroll County. She writes from Westminster.

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