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"Better to Give": A Commentary

By Merrie Spaeth

Dallas, TX – Recently, President Bush urged Americans to give to charity, and I want to talk a little about supporting charities. A statistic just crossed my desk - and I'm usually criticizing statistics as misleading - you know, the old "lies, damn lies and statistics." But this one caught my eye - 70% of women business owners contribute to charity. That seemed very positive to me. Why do we give? Perhaps because, as women, we have received so much, and we see ourselves as stewards - of our families, of our small enterprises, of our communities.

If you'll indulge me, today I want to share my children's experiences with you. I'm what the doctors so charmingly call an 'elderly mother,' so at age 39 when I had my son, Philip, he was showered with presents from our friends - hundreds of expensive gifts. Big ones too - you know, like the bears from FAO Schwartz. I mean, this was the material baby.

When he turned five and began to receive the grand sum of a dollar a week for an allowance, I told him he'd have to save 10%, or one dime, each week, and give 10%, another dime, to a worthy cause. I let him choose the cause. We had friends who went to adopt a dog from the SPCA. Philip was so moved by all the cats and dogs that had been abandoned that he adopted the SPCA.

When my daughter, Maverick, turned five, she picked the Genesis Women's Shelter, which helps abused women and their children. Both children have jars into which they put their weekly 10%, and they go down once or twice a year to make their contribution in person.

Maverick, now nine, is still collecting dimes and quarters - she only gets two dollars a week; but Philip, now 13, is turning over several hundred dollars a year, plus volunteering, reading the newsletter and acting as an advocate for the SPCA to other kids his age.

A few years ago, I worked for Lamar Alexander, who was, at that time, Chairman of the Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. It was inspiring to see the impact of private charities. And I think we most clearly understand that impact by personal involvement and connection with the individual charity or effort.

When we add up all these numbers, they really don't mean much. Americans gave $203 billion last year, up about 3% and double the $100 billion we gave in 1990, but still the smallest annual increase in five years. Money given to charity only represents about 2% of GNP. Did you know most contributions come from individuals? A research group, New Tithing, says Americans could have given twice what they did. Think what that would mean to charities like the Austin Street Shelter here in Dallas, and the Stewpot, a mission of First Presbyterian Church.

Speaking of tithing, I grew up being taught to allocate 10% of earnings to charity. That was the standard set by my great-grandparents, who were immigrants from Germany. My great-grandfather was a blacksmith with eight children. But they managed to give more generously than I do. I finally started writing weekly checks to charity, since I can write, or charge, a small weekly check to the church or the United Negro College Fund more easily than I seem to be able to budget a substantial contribution at the end of the year.

So along with exercising, reading, not smoking, not using drugs, and a host of other good habits which produce a healthy life, a productive life, and I believe a happy life, we're trying to develop muscular habits of giving to charity now. We may be an awfully small part of that $200 billion, but by golly, we're going to be a regular part.