Speaker Touts American Tradition of Private Giving

January 2018

Karl Zinsmeister describes himself as a refugee from politics. One of his reasons has to do with his belief that the world of politics is ill prepared to solve today’s social problems.


Instead, Zinsmeister believes in another solution, one that is distinctively American and that has proven effective throughout the country’s history. Zinsmeister, who directs an energetic publishing program at The Philanthropy Roundtable in Washington, D.C., endorsed the power and importance of private giving.

He made his case before the President’s Lyceum last week, sharing stories about Americans who used their wealth and passion to support education, the nation’s defense and the arts, among other causes. These examples and dozens of others are chronicled in Zinsmeister’s book, The Almanac of American Philanthropy.

“Philanthropy is a huge part of what we are,” he told the group. “We solve public problems with private resources.”

Zinsmeister talked about George Eastman, founder Eastman-Kodak, who hired chemists from Boston Tech. When the college was about to close for financial reasons, he provided the means to sustain it. Today, the school is known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or M.I.T. Alfred Loomis, who made his fortune in the Stock Market, financed his passion for scientific discoveries, among them his experiments with radio waves that lead to the development of radar. That technology gave the Allies an advantage over Germany in World War II. Southerner Edmund McIlhenny grew up listening to Negro spirituals but found that this rich cultural treasure was disappearing because the songs were no longer being passed verbally to the next generation. Using his personal wealth, he hired a musicologist to document the lyrics and melodies. The book he published contained 125 songs including the one quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech.

“Passion usually leads to good things,” Zinsmeister concluded. “The right person with the right time in the right spirit can do it.”

He pointed to the 80 percent of charitable giving in the U.S. that comes from individuals, amounting to a household average of $3,000 per year. While that might not seem to be enough to change the world for the better, Zinsmeister noted that the volume of small donations makes this giving significant.

“The problem is that we are not understanding the depth and breadth and intensity of philanthropic activity and what it can lead to,” Zinsmeister, pointing out that he shares stories of other entrepreneurial philanthropists on his podcast, “Sweet Charity.”

What happens when philanthropy does a great wrong? Sarah Schulkins, a graduate student from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, asked Zinsmeister for this thoughts on whether government should have a larger role. Other than certifying that the funds are used as stated, he was not in favor of greater regulation.

“Good ideas push out bad ideas. You often end up in a place that you didn’t expect to be. I am in favor of trusting people because the record has been that bad ideas die out fast,” he said.

Senior finance major Amy Schatzmann, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, asked about how to choose the right cause to support that could bring about the greatest positive change.

“The thing that most philanthropists do is to give to what they know. That’s is why most philanthropy is local. The local knowledge is really useful,” he said.

“The first rule of thumb, if you want to be an effective leader, is to operate in an area where you have individual, personal expertise. Sometimes it’s smarter and actually a better way to move the needle is to find people at arms’ length who need help. Be local and be personal.”

< Show All Articles