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Generosity versus altruism: philanthropy and charity in the US and UK

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International differences in giving levels are becoming increasingly well documented by a variety of sources. Less well explicated in both research and practice are the social understandings of the role and meaning of charitable giving in different countries and cultures. This paper contributes a comparative analysis of giving ethos and behaviour in two countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular the relationship of giving to civic life. It identifies differences in giving ethos and behaviour in the two countries, and postulates two models—generosity and altruism—for explaining those differences. Obvious disparities between the two countries exist when overall levels of giving are considered. In the United States, individual giving as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product has consistently hovered around 2%. By contrast, charitable giving in the United Kingdom has yet to reach 1% of GDP. Various strategies, including those imported from the US, have not been able to move that percentage significantly higher, and giving levels were in fact declining in the mid-1990s as incomes were rising. Intriguingly, while the two countries differ dramatically in the total amounts given, rates of participation in giving are quite similar. These kinds of figures have encouraged some analysts to conclude that the giving culture in the UK is simply less well developed than in the US. This conclusion, however, neglects the complexity of the differences between the political structures, social attitudes, and the role of charitable giving in the two countries. Other countries and cultures may also suffer similar simplistic assessments in an era when the export of American civic concepts and strategies has become increasingly popular.

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