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?
I don't think so. It seems like now that we have more to give, we give less. Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School told The Carnegie Reporter, "African Americans don't have enough commitment to charitable giving even though it works in their behalf . . . It has to improve because right now it's not sufficient to support our organizations. We can do much, much better. Indeed it's crucial for African Americans to give more."
The ranks of African-American philanthropists include a number of individuals who do give—and give significant sums. However, Oprah Winfrey is the only African American listed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy's 2007 list of the 50 most generous donors. Significant numbers of African Americans who have the capacity to give either do not give at all or are not giving enough. Even if we may not have the capacity to make seven-figure contributions, in many cases we can give $500 or more.
We have more African Americans in the ranks of the middle and upper middle class than ever before. Many of these individuals have the capacity and resources to be philanthropists. They should be making more of a concerted effort to use those resources, in part, to financially support the organizations that are struggling to alleviate poverty, provide equal educational opportunities to all regardless of race and economic status and reform the criminal justice system.
Consider living by Black Enterprise's Declaration of Financial Empowerment Principle 10—"I will use a portion of my wealth to strengthen my community." Maybe one day more of us will live by Oprah Winfrey's statement "the benefit of making money is to give it away."
While every one has causes near and dear to their heart, here are some ways to become an effective donor:
· Consider giving both to organizations run by African Americans and organizations that are not run by African Americans, but work on issues related to the African-American community and organizations.
· Consider focusing your giving on one organization rather than a number of organizations. By focusing your giving on one organization, you will be able to have more impact, rather than giving smaller amounts to a number of organizations.
· Rather than purchasing tickets for fundraising events, consider giving unrestricted funds or general operating support to a nonprofit organization. If you purchase a $1,000 ticket for a gala dinner, a portion of your ticket price goes toward the event expenses and is not retained by the organization. However, if you write a check for $1,000 that is non-event related or over and above the cost of the ticket, the organization receives the full $1,000.
· Decide whether you want to assist an individual or an organization. There are a number of programs that allow you to pay the costs of a private school education or provide a scholarship for a particular student. You can also support programs that provide scholarships to students or after-school services to youth.
· Determine whether you want to support programs or advocacy. Some organizations provide direct services to individuals such as food banks, after-school programs and legal representation of indigent persons. On the other hand, some organizations advocate for public policy change. Some organizations perform both direct service and advocacy.
· Consider forming a giving circle with friends, colleagues and family. In a giving circle, individuals pool their charitable resources and jointly decide the types of organizations they would like to support.
Angelia Dickens is an attorney at a nonprofit organization.