Breakthrough philanthropy

[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Philanthropy has provided the power to create real breakthroughs in American society.

Imagine this society without the idea, now a part of our culture, that our donations can change the pace of achieving cures for disease.

The Mothers March of Dimes gave us all that breakthrough conviction.

Of course, these donations also funded the University of Pittsburgh lab that came up with the cure for polio, and supported thousands of new Ph.D.’s in microbiology that went on to make breakthroughs in other disease areas during their careers after the polio vaccine was developed.

These funds also supported many families stricken with polio. But the new idea was that ordinary citizens could affect the pace of scientific research.

They believed their funds and volunteer time would make the difference, and they did.

Today, hundreds of associations raise millions of dollars for every disease condition imaginable. And American giving for medical research has developed the idea in many other countries.

Another new idea birthed by philanthropy criminalizes drunk driving.

Before Candy Lightner lost her daughter to a drunk driver, people thought they had to accept this danger as a part of life, as something that just might strike anytime like an earthquake.

Mrs. Lightner and her friends started Mothers Against Drunk Driving and changed the social, political and, most importantly, legal consensus around alcohol excesses and automobiles.

Three thousand laws now stand on the books to punish severely those who drink and drive.

But most powerfully, the donations and volunteer time of MADD changed the minds of millions of Americans.

MADD created a breakthrough in our thinking and our judgments, and on the education of our fellow citizens, especially our young people.

This was another breakthrough that other countries learned from Americans, regular citizens who made their own lives into generous contributions to the lives of their fellow Americans.

Philanthropy, the way Americans give their time and their money, creates real change for the better through the decades.

Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

Helping hands [9.20.04]

Change agent [10.11.04]

Retailing generosity [10.25.04]

Prescription for change [11.22.04]

Whitewashing history [12.06.04]

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