Americans are some of the most generous people in the world, conventional wisdom says. An article in the December 12, 2002, London Times asserted, "Across the country, and at all levels of society, Americans are giving away much more money to good causes than anyone else in the world." In the United States in 2001, the piece continued, contributions to secular nonprofits equaled about 1 percent of the country's gross domestic product, "nearly twice the proportion of the UK and three times that of France. ... only Israelis handed over more, with 1.3 per cent of GDP." At the other end of the scale, charitable giving in Germany reached "just 0.1 per cent of GDP."
Of course, circumstances in Europe differ markedly from those in the United States. From health care to the arts to higher education, European governments support many programs and services that fall under the private and nonprofit sectors in America. If Europeans truly do give less to charity, perhaps it is because their tax dollars are already funding the kinds of programs that American donors support.
Even with government playing so large a role in social welfare, the European nonprofit sector grew during the past decade. The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project at Johns Hopkins University estimates that between 1990 and 1995, nonprofit employment increased 7 percent in the Netherlands, 20 percent in France, 28 percent in the United Kingdom, 37 percent in Hungary, and 42 percent in Germany. (Employment in the U.S. nonprofit sector increased 20 percent during this period.)
The nonprofit sector's growth extended beyond Europe, however. Nonprofit employment in Japan increased 27 percent between 1990 and 1995. Nor was was the sector's influence confined to developed nations. The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project calculates that by 1995, nonprofit organizations in 26 nations—including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru—employed 31 million full-time equivalent workers. "Generally speaking," one of the project's publications concludes, "the nonprofit sector is larger in developed countries than in developing ones, but it still constitutes a significant force in the developing world."
GuideStar's experience indicates that the independent sector is continuing to expand globally. During the past two years, Japanese, Mexican, and British nonprofit leaders have consulted with GuideStar about ways to strengthen charitable reporting in their countries.
Thus, in the not-so-distant future, Americans may find themselves in competition for the title of "most generous people in the world." In a universe made ever smaller by technology, in which actions by one nation can reverberate throughout the globe, and in which the welfare of one people can have repercussions on the other side of the world, that might not be a bad thing.
The preceding post is by Suzanne Coffman, GuideStar's director of communications.