Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing associations, in which all partake, but associations of a thousand other kinds – religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government of France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.— Alexis de Tocqueville
At American Philanthropic, we believe that to be most effective, philanthropy is best understood as an integral part of American civil society — and, therefore, American democracy.
As Alexis de Tocqueville famously recognized, Americans’ energetic commitment to the voluntary associations that constitute civil society is something unique in the world. The American ideal of “rugged individualism” may have largely shaped our national personality, but to understand fully the character of American individualism it is necessary to understand that this individualism has been accompanied by a vibrant communitarianism.
In other words, Americans have wished to be free, but in their freedom they have also, at their best, wished to become a nation of flourishing communities full of strong, healthy families and neighborhoods. To realize this crucial aspect of the American dream, they have formed numerous — and fantastically variegated — associations, including charities, fraternal clubs, libraries, hospitals, churches, trade unions, civic and community groups, and political advocacy organizations. Furthermore, on scales small and large, community leaders have emerged to form foundations and trusts that support such groups financially.
These associations and foundations are the organs of civil society, and it is our participation in civil society which serves to fully humanize us. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle . . . of public affections,” observed Edmund Burke. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” The sociologist Robert Nisbet taught that “the family, religious association, and local community . . . are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.”
Because humans are social by nature, true freedom takes hold in the space that exists between the individual and the state. Freedom thrives, Nisbet reminded his readers, “in cultural diversity, in local and regional differentiation, in associative pluralism, and, above all, in the diversification of power.”
Americans instinctively realize this, even if they cannot always articulate it. That understanding is manifested in the singular American commitment to civil society, which goes hand in hand with the American commitment to a limited government. As a result, the size and scope of the American philanthropic community is paralleled nowhere else in the world: by every measure — in absolute numbers, on a per-capita basis, as a percentage of GDP — private giving in the United States exceeds by far that of the world’s other major nations. Indeed, foreign observers often regard Americans’ charitable record with a mixture of awe and incomprehension.
Even so, as works such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone have demonstrated, American civil society has frayed as our genius for, and impulse toward, voluntary association declines. Tocqueville warned that “if men are to remain civilized, or to become so,” in a relatively egalitarian and democratic age, “the art of associating together must grow and improve.”
The mission of American Philanthropic is to promote the “art” of civil association by improving the effectiveness of American charitable foundations and nonprofit organizations. Our belief is that if such associations can more fully realize their visions, American civil society and American democracy will become healthier—and American individuals and communities will more fully flourish.