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The Kindness of Strangers

by Michael Marsicano

January 6,2007

Like many of you, I watched the classic film "It’s a Wonderful Life" over the holidays. The film has many merits, but it’s the kindness of strangers theme that resonates with me the most.

The kindness of strangers is a simple notion played out in the United States with more depth and complexity than most people realize. In the simplest of terms, we define the “kindness of strangers” as philanthropy. And no country in the history of the world has so creatively and effectively combined the kindness of strangers with government policy.

In the United States, we believe government exists to serve the people, to advance society and to enable the prosperity of the governed. Accordingly, when individuals seek to advance human welfare as philanthropists, our government responds in a most curious and quite extraordinary way.

American government takes money from us in the form of taxation and uses it to advance the welfare of our people. But, when we as individuals volunteer our hard-earned dollars to advance society by freely giving from our own pockets, government taxes us less. We get a tax deduction. In other words, when we Americans are kind to strangers, we pay less to Uncle Sam.

As a matter of public policy the law of the land rewards us for taking a personal role in the advancement of society and in the prosperity of others. We are able to give less to Caesar when we give more to others. In America, if you support non profit organizations by making donations, then our government sees you as a partner. This is uniquely American and profoundly important.

Furthermore, the money you will not give to Caesar may be put to use for the advancement of society in ways that Caesar would not choose. Whereas Caesar might build public housing, you might build a habitat house. Whereas Caesar might partner with electric companies to create nuclear power plants, you might invest in wind energy through a non profit environmental organization.

You can also use your tax deduction to contradict your government. If you believe the direction headed by Caesar is wrong, he will still give you a tax deduction when you freely finance the opposite side. If you don’t like America at war, give to a non profit anti-war program and Caesar still gives you a tax deduction for doing so.

Caesar trusts our individual judgment as much as he trusts his own. Nowhere else in the world do we find such trust of the governed by the government.

In the book, The Greater Good, New York University professor Claire Gaudiani maintains that “most people think Americans are generous because we are rich.” But the truth, according to Gaudiani is that “we are rich, in significant part, because we are generous.” The Greater Good is full of examples where philanthropic gifts to non profit organizations have spawned entire for-profit industries generating enormous wealth.

We in the Charlotte area are indeed a generous people. In a social capital benchmark survey of Charlotte and 39 other U.S. cities, Charlotte ranked second in charitable giving and volunteerism. A record-breaking $206 million in donations to Foundation For The Carolinas in 2006 is proof of our region’s generosity. Thousands of worthy causes will benefit this year from those donations.

Play your part in this legacy by giving freely of your own hard-earned dollars to causes you care about. Be generous not only with your financial resources, but with your time and energy. Consider serving on volunteer non profit boards and helping us guide with integrity the trillions of dollars that our parents will bequeath to hospitals, art museums and universities as final acts in their lives.

I hope this essay has encouraged you to think a bit differently about our tradition of philanthropy. I intentionally wrapped charitable giving in the American flag – where it belongs. And I did so because my experience suggests we take for granted the privilege of making charitable contributions and receiving a tax deduction for having done so.

We are privileged to be generous. Please do not take it for granted. Recognize that it is uniquely American, profoundly important and the very backbone of our society. We are connected, quite literally, by the law of this land to the kindness of strangers.

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