In 2007, Oprah Winfrey gave $50 million to establish the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and Oprah’s Angel Network; in 1987 Bill Cosby gave $20 million to Spelman College; in 2004 Buddy Fletcher pledged to give away $50 million to organizations to further the goal of Brown v. Board of Education.
African Americans have a tradition of philanthropy; we just haven’t always called it that. Whether giving money to a passenger seeking passage on the Underground Railroad or providing seed funding for black-owned business in our communities, African Americans have always given to meaningful causes.
During the Civil Rights Movement, donations from our community supported the organizations on the front lines, including the NAACP, SNCC, CORE and SCLC. And today, African Americans generally give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities and nonprofit organizations than our white counterparts.
But we could be doing more.
In some areas we’re doing okay, African Americans who earn between $30,000 and $50,000 give an average of $528 to charity annually, as opposed to whites, who earn in the same range and give an average of $462 annually. Our charitable donations do have an impact, even if our gifts don’t make the front pages of newspapers.
African Americans of all incomes and socio-economic classes have always given regular donations to their churches, mosques or religious institutions, either through tithes or regular offerings. In many cases, the church then gave a percentage of the donations to local or national organizations, working to eliminate poverty or improve economic opportunities. Church-based giving accounts for the bulk of African-American charitable donations. According to a 2003 study entitled “How Americans Give, The Chronicle of Philanthropy,” 90 percent of charitable donations given by African Americans are made to churches or other religious institutions.
Similarly, African Americans have traditionally made donations—sometimes sizable—to our educational institutions. Buddy Fletcher’s donation to Harvard University and Reginald Lewis’ $3 million donation to Harvard Law School are frequently noted examples, but many graduates make yearly donations to their college, university, graduate school and sometimes even high school.
Another type of philanthropy that is not generally identified is the financial support we give our extended families. When we loan a family member money to get through a tough time, like helping a cousin pay their college tuition or pay outstanding medical bills for a family member, this is philanthropy.
But is following the respected tradition of giving to churches, schools and family enough?