December 20th, 2007
It is always flattering to be interviewed for a TV network, but this was the first time it was for a Korean audience. The questions were certainly as telling as my answers were interesting [of course]. Their assumptions about American philanthropy and generosity assumed the truth of American exceptionalism – that Americans as a people are more generous than other nations. The example they gave was the widely publicized “coat drive” appeal being heard on all radio and TV stations in the New York area. [It is true that Americans have a highly developed institutional third sector; it is less clear, as readers of this blog know, that Americans are in fact more generous than others around the world.]
At the end of the interview, it was clear that their motivation was to encourage Koreans to learn to be more philanthropic and to strengthen the voluntary sector in South Korea. They pointed out that, in Korea, 80% of philanthropic giving comes from corporations and only 20% from individuals whereas the inverse seems to apply here.
There is indeed much to learn from American philanthropy, but not all of it is necessarily complimentary. While it is true that most Americans feel some commitment to give voluntarily, it is also true that, in the USA, there is no assumption that the public/government sector is the first place to turn for human need. In most other industrialized/modern societies, the assumption is that human need is first and foremost a public responsibility. But in the USA, many feel that, if not for their personal support, the homeless will be on the streets and the hungry will not be fed. People can differ on which reflects the more caring vision for society.
At the same time, even societies which feel that the public sector should provide for human needs recognize the limits of the ability of any government to provide for all needs in an open ended way. No nation is rich enough for that. There certainly is still the role for private philanthropy to add to those services or to be the place for innovation and change. It is indeed a good thing for all individuals to feel the commitment to voluntarism – financially and otherwise. And if Korean society can adapt the best of our philanthropy to its own reality, it would surely be a stronger society.
One last point: the interviewer asked me what role the private/corporate sector might play in advancing this vision. I replied that it is not enough for corporations to serve their own image by strategically placed contributions; really good corporate citizenship encourages employee giving, through matching funds, time released volunteerism, and loaned executives for the ngo sector. Attitudes and behaviors can change – if there are communal values which inform them.