October 27, 1999

Last week at the White House, I met some real heroes -- people who understand the importance of giving.
After seeing news accounts of the refugee crisis in Yugoslavia, 10-year-old Gil Castellanos wanted to help, so he created "Simply from the Heart," an effort to raise $1 from each resident of his hometown, Elmhurst, Ill. Matthew Nonnemacher, of Hazelton, Penn., was also 10 when he launched a drive to collect pennies for the poor. His total: 1.8 million, or $18,000.

At the age of 78, Matel Dawson still spends over 80 hours a week operating a forklift at the Ford Motor Company, just as he has for 59 years. Over the last eight years, Mat has given away $1 million, mostly helping college students complete their education. Asked why he continues to work so hard, Mat responds, "I need the money. I need it to give away."

The Rev. Ann Pearson inherited $1,000 from her Uncle John. Hoping to inspire an ethic of caring in others, she decided to give each of her parishioners $10 that they, in turn, would give away. What Ann found was that the money grew as enthusiastic donors brought new opportunities and ideas for community service into the church and requested support for additional giving.

Giving has always been an important tradition in this country. More than a hundred years ago, political observer Alexis de Tocqueville said that charity in America is more than simple compassion. It is a sign of good citizenship. He wrote, "Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare. They hardly ever fail to lend faithful support to one another."

I have been privileged to travel to many of the world's newest democracies -- places where people are just beginning to understand both the benefits and the responsibilities of freedom. Everywhere I go, someone asks me how the United States has been able to make its democracy work for so many years.

Our democracy thrives, I reply, not just because we enjoy free elections and free markets, it also thrives because our citizens are the most generous in the world, both with their time, and with their resources.

Our democracy thrives because of people like Gil and Matthew, Matel and Ann. Our democracy thrives because of people like Osceola McCarty. Osceola spent a lifetime washing, starching and ironing other people's clothes. She lived simply and frugally. Four years ago, she decided to use her life savings to endow a scholarship fund at a nearby university. "I'm giving it away so that the children won't have to work so hard like I did," she explained. At the age of 91, Osceola passed away, but her generous spirit lives on.

In order to honor "heroes" like these, and to highlight the American tradition of giving, the President and I hosted the first-ever White House Conference on Philanthropy last week. We listened as donors, young people, policy experts and representatives of non-profits, foundations and educational programs discussed the diverse and changing face of philanthropy, and explored how best to preserve and expand this valuable tradition.

There has never been a better time to take a look at philanthropy in this country. We are living in a period of unprecedented prosperity, a time when the new economy has produced new wealth and the Baby Boom generation stands poised to inherit $12 trillion from their parents.

Although dramatic gifts from a new group of donors, many of whom have made their fortunes in the technology boom, have drawn new attention to giving, Osceola, Gil, Matthew, Matel and Ann prove every day that philanthropy is not just for the wealthy. As a matter of fact, the face of giving in this country is almost as diverse as the population itself.

Last year, donations to charitable causes reached a new high, totaling nearly $150 billion. Individuals accounted for 85 percent of that amount, up a third since 1995. As a percent of our gross national product, total giving exceeded 2 percent last year, the highest level since 1971.

This is all great news, but I can't help but wonder what we could do as a nation if we increased our giving even more.

Imagine this: If we increased our giving by just 1 percent, we could offer child care to more than 6 million children, deliver 250 million more meals to the homebound elderly, and guarantee Head Start to every low-income preschooler in America. We could provide shelter to 4 million people, save all the rare books in our libraries, and still have more than enough money left over to create the equivalent of a Ford Foundation each year.

As we move toward the new century, the President and I have asked every American to identify the gifts they can make for the future. There is no better gift our generation can give than creating an even stronger philanthropic tradition.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at