Meeting Review

Compared to the States

By Karel de Leeuw

On December 20 we spoke with Arjen de Wit, researcher at the Centre for Philanthropic Studies (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam). He agreed to meet our research group and Renée Steenbergen to talk about his ongoing research in the United States of America. His main question is: Do donors give more if they know government is cutting down?

The first plan for this conversation was that Renée was going to introduce us to Arjen and after she could ask a few questions herself she planned on leaving. What happend was a really nice dialogue between a researcher that is mostly orientated towards the U.S. and quantitative research (Arjen de Wit) and a researcher more focussed on the Dutch/European arts philanthropy in combination with qualitative research. Renée ended up staying for the entire interview and we learned a lot from this discussion.

In this post I will focus on the main differences in philanthropic motivations in the U.S. compared to the European model.

We all know that all though we consider the Netherlands and the United States as part of the West, the two countries differ a lot. Without going into too much detail, it is fair to state that in the Netherlands people are more dependent on the government, due to the welfare state that we used to have. In the States it is a different story. Americans put much more emphasis on independence and self-reliance. This difference also causes the two nations to have a different view of what the government should or should not do.

Americans tend to think that the government should stay out of philanthropic causes. A project, program or artist should always try to make their own money/profit, like a true capitalist should. If a project is struggling to make money, but people see the benefits of it, others might be willing to donate money to the cause. In the Netherlands the taxes are higher and a certain amount of the taxed money is being used for philanthropy. People trust the government to make adequate decisions with the money they can spend on behalve of the people. After all, they have the time and resources to look into these things.

As a result of the Dutch policy government subsidies can be seen as a hallmark. If the government gives money to a certain institution, other donors might follow, because of this hallmark. The result in the United States sometimes is the direct opposite. If an institution receives money from the government it is viewed as less and will most often not attract other, private donors.

The act of giving is always accompanied by a reason, but reasons for giving can differ between countries. At the Day of Arts Philanthropy Pamala Wiepking gave the following 8 main reasons for giving to philanthropic causes:

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While all of these are of importance in both the United States and the Netherlands, the big difference between these countries is how people donate. If you are a major donor in the United States and have donated a significant sum of money to an institution, the institution might decide to name a part of the building after the donor. The donor also wants people to know he or she donated. In the Netherlands people tend to donate “anonymously”. The quotation marks are added because in a lot of cases people do know who or what fund is behind something, but it is not something that is as out in the open as a plaque on an American university wall would be for instance.

The last main difference discussed is debt. If an organization in Europe or the Netherlands has a large debt people will be reluctant to give. Questions will arise as to why the debt occurred. Was the board corrupt? Did they invest their money in a bad way? Can’t they reach their own audience? Whatever questions come up, they usually put the blame at the organization.

In the United States the view on debt is totally different. It is seen as an inherent part of entrepreneurship. This also shows when we talk about donating to an organization that has debts. An American might view it as a good thing, since having debt means they were willing to put their necks out and take risks. Eventually they might end up receiving more money than an organizations without debt.

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