Americans donated an estimated $335 billion to charitable causes, and foundations an estimated $50 billion in 2013 according to Giving USA. These numbers validate President John F. Kennedy’s notion that philanthropy is “a jewel of an American tradition.”
Indeed the legacy of American philanthropy is a proud one, built on the stories of countless individuals determined to forge a better world. The benefits of philanthropic giving extend across generations, however, it is philanthropy’s role in the Civil Rights Movement that is often forgotten.
The Movement from 1955-1965 was funded by charitable giving, big and small. A bold group of foundations and individuals from all corners of the country gave what they could in the unified effort to spread freedom and ensure that America fulfills its promise for all creeds and colors.
However, fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the dismantling of Jim Crow, our country still finds itself at a critical crossroad. Many of our children, despite Brown v. Board of Education, are still denied access to the quality education they deserve. Wealth disparities between races continues to exacerbate, and the proliferation of voting restrictions will prevent countless Americans from participating in the most sacred act of democracy. These inequalities are just a reminder that there is much more work left to be done.
The untimely deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have inspired new generations of activists from all walks of life to courageously promote agendas of inclusiveness and challenge societal norms. But, to create lasting change, it is vital that we stimulate the spirit of giving within today’s movement.
No time in history has the potential power of the collective been greater. With all our technological advances we can mobilize in ways at speeds that our predecessors could not have imagined. However, we will only achieve this collective impact if we work together to align our approaches, pool our resources, and coordinate efforts to systemically chip away at outdated statistics and stereotypes.
I am reminded of an African proverb - if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
And philanthropy has the power to do just that.
Edward Smith-Lewis is an Associate Program Officer at The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.