Americans give and Americans volunteer. We are a society of generosity – even during times of intensely different perspectives and ideology. Americans gave more than $410 billion to charity and volunteered more than 7.8 billion hours of service in 2017. But we cannot and should not take this generosity for granted. The Generosity Commission, born from an initiative of The Giving Institute, has been created to explore the questions that will help sustain and strengthen the giving, volunteering and civic engagement that brings out the best in America.
The Generosity Commission has been awhile in the making and its concept is not entirely new. More than 50 years ago, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller formed the Commission on Foundations and Private Philanthropy to research the role of philanthropy in American society. This group evolved into the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs which subsequently became known as the Filer Commission (named after its Chairman, John Filer, CEO of the then Aetna Life and Casualty Company). The Filer Commission began to explore giving and factors impacting it, such as the Tax Reform Act of 1969. It was privately initiated and privately funded but benefited from the support of philanthropists and civic and nonprofit leaders.
The Filer Commission’s work resulted in a report published in 1975, Giving in America: Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector. This 200+ page report of its findings outlined 19 recommendations for the charitable sector, and focused on three main areas: democratizing philanthropy, improving the philanthropic process and establishing a permanent national commission on philanthropy within the federal government. You can review the entire report in the Indiana University Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives here.
The Filer Commission was disbanded shortly after the release of its report (President Carter was reluctant to establish executive leadership on the matter) but the subsequent rise in critical analysis and discussion about charitable giving can certainly be linked back to its work.
As part of his leadership of The Giving Institute as Board Chair from 2015-2017, JB+A President + CEO Jeffrey Byrne created a working group, which then became a committee, to facilitate the convening of a major conference of thought leaders, academics, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, NGOs and leaders of civic engagement and corporate governance, to build upon the work of the Filer Commission and drive a renewed exploration of the critical role of philanthropy in society.
And now, The Generosity Commission is taking shape: an extremely strong, nonpartisan collection of stakeholders and experts working diligently to solidify its vision, structure, timeframe and agenda. Jeffrey Byrne shares his thoughts on The Generosity Commission: “I am very proud of this effort, very supportive of it and very encouraged by the future implications it could hold for our country.”
The philanthropic landscape in America is strong. But as much as it’s tied to who we are, that’s no guarantee it will last forever. Society is changing, and we are beginning to see shifts in charitable giving and volunteering trends. The Generosity Commission will take on tough questions about philanthropy with the objective of advancing it well into the next generation. Stay tuned.