African-American Lessons in Giving
Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are widely described as two of the smartest beings on the planet. So it wouldn't surprise me at all if they know about Thomas Cannon.
On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if they didn't. Still, when I read news reports of Buffett's and Gates' charitable-giving project, I saw it as a timely tribute to Cannon, who died last year at age 79. The longtime resident of Richmond, Va., was no titan of industry, but for many he embodied the spirit of giving more than any megabillionaire could.
Although he was a postal worker who seldom earned as much as $30,000 a year, Cannon routinely gave away much of what he earned, usually in increments of $1,000. His generosity was celebrated in such national forums as Ebony Magazine and on the Oprah Winfrey and "Nightline" TV shows.
Cannon made his first donation in 1972, when he was 47. He had given away an estimated $150,000 by the time he died. His methods must have required some extraordinary penny-pinching, but he didn't see it that way. He once explained to a reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch exactly how he did it: "People say, 'How can you afford it?' Well, how can people afford new cars and boats? Instead of those, we deliberately kept our standard of living down below our means. I get money from the same place people get money for those other things."
It would be easy to point to Cannon, a black man, as a role model for African-Americans everywhere. But, in this regard, African-American communities are qualified to serve as role models for the country at large. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, blacks donate 25 percent more of their discretionary income than whites. On average, Black Enterprise magazine notes, black households give $1,614 to their favorite causes. That figure doesn't take into account tithing -- contributing 10 percent of household income -- to churches, a widespread practice among black families.
Target Market News, a Chicago-based research firm, found that African-Americans made $11.4 billion in charitable contributions in 2004. That kind of giving tends to be curiously overlooked by critics who describe their black countrymen as selfish underachievers who lounge around waiting for handouts.
Black Enterprise's 2005 list of the nation's leading black philanthropists included people long noted for their generosity, such as Winfrey, Bill Cosby and radio superstar Tom Joyner. Others on the list, such as basketball star Alonzo Mourning and rapper-actor Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, certainly deserve more credit for their willingness to share. None of them fits the charitable-giving profile of the typical wealthy American. According to a 2000 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the rich tend to give a far lower percent of their net worth than the rest of us.
Gates and Buffett, whether they know it or not, are carrying on in the tradition of Thomas Cannon. And so is Darryl Lester, in his own way.
"We call it an old tradition with a new twist," he told me. Lester is the founding partner of HindSight Consulting, a nonprofit based in Raleigh, N.C., that helps build networks for community-based giving. From informal conversations in private homes, HindSight creates giving circles to help ordinary citizens donate in a more strategic fashion. Members of each circle offer annual contributions, which the group then gives away in the form of grants. "By pooling not just money but time, talent and resources, we help people become part of a larger philanthropic conversation," Lester said.
He established the first circle in Raleigh. Called the Next Generation of African-American Philanthropists, it gave away more than $11,000 in its first round of grant-making, including to local groups helping women with AIDS and working to close the achievement gap in public schools. "Now we have an opportunity to do some collective problem-solving together," Lester said. "Why are so many people hungry and why are so many people homeless? I'm not saying that charity at the basic level isn't important, but as a people we need to look at the root causes of these problems."
HindSight has since helped establish giving circles in Birmingham, Ala., New Orleans, and Christiansburg, Va. Lester said he is now working to establish another giving circle in Raleigh-Durham that will consist solely of black men. It's all about paying it forward, he said. "Maybe the creator helped you get where you are so that you could give back," he said, "not so you could hoard more stuff."