America is one of the most generous nations in the world. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about 60 percent of Americans regularly engage in some kind of charitable activity, compared to 40 percent in other developed countries.
A study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that Americans donated some $358 billion last year, and most of it came not from corporations but from individuals and families. In addition, Americans spent 8 billion hours volunteering for charitable causes, ranging from church activities to political organizations to helping out neighbors and strangers.
While Americans of all races and ages contribute their money and time, retirees are the ones who reach out the most. Some two thirds of retirees say that retirement is the best time to give back. Why? Because retirees have the extra time, and many also have the extra money. On average retirees are sitting on four times the net worth of their children in their 30s and 40s who are working and raising families, and so the result is that retirees account for some 40 percent of charitable giving.
The Purpose Prize, for Americans age 60 and over, created ten years ago by Encore.org, a nonprofit group focused on those “in midlife and beyond.” The Purpose Prize is given to older people who do charitable work to improve their communities.
This year six prizes, ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, were awarded, along with 41 “honorable mentions.” One prize went to Jamal Joseph, 62, an ex-con who co-founded the Impact Repertory Theater in New York City.
Joseph provides a safe place where young people can talk and write about how their lives are affected by bullying, gangs, violence and drugs. The participants learn ways to convert their experiences into dance, plays, poems and music. But the program is no comfortable liberal-arts type seminar. Participants first attend a three-month boot camp where they learn leadership skills, conflict resolution and time management. Then they do community service, participate in exercise programs, pledge to get good grades in school and keep daily journals.
Another prize went to Belle Mickelson, 67, a science teacher turned Episcopal priest who lives in Cordova, Alaska. Her program, Dancing with the Spirit, aims to help rural children and connect them with their elders. She travels to remote villages in Alaska, and through music and art, helps teens develop confidence and cope with the adolescent depression that is often masked by alcohol and drug abuse.
The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey also found one other benefit to charitable activities. They offer significant payback to the donors.
Some 70 percent of retirees said contributing time and money makes them feel as though they are making a difference in other people’s lives, which in turn makes them feel like they have a greater purpose in their own lives. Those surveyed also signaled that being generous provides a significant source of happiness — more so, for example, than spending money on themselves.
Retirees who are active in charities also have a stronger sense of purpose and higher self-esteem. They have lower rates of depression as well as lower blood pressure and lower mortality rates. So . . . it seems that those who lend the hand get just as much support as those who accept the hand.