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The Rich Donate To The Elite—The Poor Help The Poor: Ken Stern On Charity
Social Change | May 22, 2013

The Rich Donate To The Elite—The Poor Help The Poor: Ken Stern On Charity

Social change speaker Ken Stern says that reading press releases on major donations in American makes it easy to think that "the story of charity in this country is a story of epic generosity on the part of the American rich." Despite the reports publicizing massive donations from wealthy donors, or the numerous university buildings that have been named after affluent benefactors, Stern argues that those with more modest incomes actually donate the most. "In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity," Stern cites in an Atlantic piece. "By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income."

Research released last year by Paul Piff showed that lower income subjects were more generous on average than their wealthier counterparts. However, the generosity of each group tended to level off when the wealthy group was shown a video of children in poverty. This suggests that an exposure to need may be driving generous behavior. And, as Stern also writes, "that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse." Not only that, but evidence has shown that someone's wealth doesn't only affect how much they donate—but what causes they donate their money to. "The poor tend to give to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums," Stern explains. "There is much to admire in our approach to charity, such as the social capital that is built by individual participation and volunteerism. But our charity system is also fundamentally regressive, and works in favor of the institutions of the elite." So, as Stern points out, the connection between wealth and generosity exists—just not in the way we may initially believe.

Ken Stern, former head of National Public Radio and a long-time nonprofit executive, is the author of With Charity for All. In the book, he delves into the structurally ineffective inner workings of the nonprofit charity industry. While he says that "we have always made a virtue of individual philanthropy, and Americans tend to see our large, independent charitable sector as crucial to our country’s public spirit," there aren't enough checks and balances in place to ensure that our contributions are utilized to their maximum potential. In his talks, he pulls the curtain back on the 1.5 trillion dollar charity industry. He sheds light on the fact that not all charities are being supported equally, and not all of them are putting our hard-earned monetary contributions to the best use possible. He shows audiences how advocating for accountability and effectiveness in the industry can lead to more beneficial charities. And, how we can make smarter decisions about where we donate our money to make a real impact on those who need it most.
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