Comparing giving in the US and in the UK is a total red herring

If I had a pound for every time I’d heard people try to compare giving in the US and in the UK, I’d have more pounds than is given in both together. It’s a rubbish comparison. Here’s why.

First, they normally compare solely the US and the UK. As though there were only two nations on Earth. It’s just lazy. Do you really not think we might also be able to learn something from other countries too?

Second, the comparison normally says ‘giving is higher in the US than here, so we should try to get our giving as high as theirs’. Any philosopher will tell you that an argument’s validity depends on its structure, independent of its content. So we can think of this statement as saying “Blah is higher in the US than here, so we should try to get our Blah as high as theirs.” Really? The rate of school shootings is higher in the US than here, so we should aspire to increase that? The proportion of ethnic minority men in prison is higher in the US than here. Carbon emissions per head are a lot higher in the US than here. The death rate for teenagers is higher in the US than any other developed country. And so absurdly on. Thus this ‘argument’ giving makes no sense.

Third, do you not think there might be just one or two other relevant differences between the UK and the US? You’ll remember from school that good experiments test only one thing at a time and keep everything else constant. Well, the US and the UK are hardly alike in every respect other than their rates of charitable giving. Cultural differences are vast, differences in social norms are vast, the role of the state versus the individual differs vastly. Citing the differences in giving levels with no consideration of the umpteen other differences is just lazy / stupid – extrapolating from the (kind of) similarity of our language to everything else.

Fourth, it’s the role of the state, stupid. In upstate New York, I was amazed a few years ago to see a sign saying “the next 5km of highway is cleaned courtesy of the [wherever I was] Rotary Club”. In Britain, every km of highway is cleaned courtesy of the government, that is to say, by the tax-payer. And thus, magically, every km of highway is cleaned, irrespective of whether there is a local Rotary Club. Notice that money given by / to the Rotary Club of Wherever I Was to clean highways counts as charitable giving, whereas the money ‘given’ to the taxman to clean UK highways doesn’t. That doesn’t show that the US is more generous, as claimed, just that the US allocates tasks differently between the state and the private citizen. It’s not obvious that a system in which your local highway might not get cleaned (if, for instance, there is no Rotary Club) is better than one in which it definitely will.

Fifth, it’s the role of the church, stupid. Faith, and hence churches and other religious institutions, are MUCH more significant in the US than elsewhere. This piece from the FT magazine even outlines out having no faith is “the last big taboo in America” where people find it easier to be lesbian single mothers then to admit atheism. Hence membership of church (or synagogues etc.) is almost ubiquitous, so of course people give to them. Religious giving in the US dwarfs that elsewhere.

Sixth, it’s not even true, as often claimed, that the US is more generous than the UK. According to NCVO / CAF, whereas 73% of UK citizens give money, only 60% of US citizens do[i]. Or another way of looking at this, official overseas aid giving by the US is 18 cents for every $100 of Gross National Income, whereas in the UK it’s nearly three times that, at 51 cents If you add together giving to international development by government and private individuals in the US, you get 25 cents per $100, whereas in the UK, you get more than twice that, at 54 cents[ii].

The World Giving Index says that the country with the greatest number of charitable givers is, remarkably, Myanmar. The UK is next. The US is not even in the top ten, in 13th position.

Seventh (yes, really), the uses of this ‘charitable’ money are not exactly what you would choose if you were an alien arriving on our inequitable and disharmonious planet. I read a report some years ago (and now annoyingly can’t find) that analysed the amount of charitable giving in the US which went to ‘communities of which the donor is a member’ – churches, synagogues, universities and so on. About a third, from memory, and enough to wipe out the per capita differences between giving in the US and the UK.

You see this most markedly in giving to universities in the US. Harvard University was sitting on $37bn at the beginning of 2008[iii], almost all of which probably counted as charitable money. Is that giving supposed to somehow embellish the health of the nation, having great cashpiles sitting around in unaccountable institutions, managed by people paid $4.4 million?

And eighthly (a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever previously written) WHAT ABOUT EFFECTIVENESS? We’d argue that it doesn’t matter if the US gives more unless we know that it’s given effectively – which we don’t. It’s not hard to give money in such a way that none of it does anything useful, and on the other hand, it is possible to give it just marvellously. A little given marvellously will produce more impact than loads given badly. The discussion about levels of giving is a measure of INPUT, not of the RESULT.

Please. Can we stop these nonsense comparisons and focus on what really matters: decent analysis which can help us to make the world better – by understanding how to make giving (and everything else) more effective.


Since this article was written, (yet) more data have emerged which indicate that US philanthropy may not be something that other countries want to emulate.

First, it’s mainly regressive. Much US philanthropy – esp from the wealthy – goes to causes and organisations that disproportionally benefit elite the rich. “Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed. More gifts in this group went to elite prep schools (one, to the Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York) than to any of our nation’s largest social-service organizations, including United Way, the Salvation Army, and Feeding America (which got, among them, zero).” – according to The Atlantic.

Second, there is evidence that US donors use philanthropy to cement their advantage. Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All is entirely about this behaviour in US donors.

Get more giving by selling it like chocolate—>

[i] The World Giving Index 2010

[ii] From The Live You Can Save, Peter Singer, page 34

[iii] Harvard endowment manager to retire, following shake-up, Boston Business Journal by Galen Moore, Friday, August 5, 2011

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7 Responses to Comparing giving in the US and in the UK is a total red herring

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  4. yboris says:

    Reblogged this on YBoris.

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