Our richly diverse array of freely chosen philanthropic causes demand our continuing support. But can we each dig a little deeper, despite the Great Recession, just as our forebears did in 1937 when they started giving dimes to attack polio?
Could we work together on a shared effort that would show our gratitude to the Founders and the republic they left us? Our history would say we can.
I am proposing a “Declaration Initiative” to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. The Founders wrote that “all men are created equal ... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
In America, 85 percent of us attain those rights. But 15 percent of us are fatally blocked. I believe our Founders’ intent is that after 250 years of freedom, all Americans have access to those precious rights.
Private-citizen associations provide our best hope to do the job. Government might be an eventual partner, but citizen associations have done this work since 1776.
The work of great philanthropic foundations has reduced infant and maternal mortality, advanced the reading readiness of preschoolers and assured that even the poorest kids are reading by age 9.
Children who read by 9 have an excellent chance to graduate from high school; avoid teen pregnancies, drug use and other illegal activities; and experience the productive lifespan of most middle-class Americans.
Currently, the bottom 15 percent are trapped in transgenerational poverty. Foundations have the keys to free them to join middle-income Americans. Their children could become tax-paying independent members of our society.
Our Declaration Initiative would connect poor communities to their dreams for their children. We could work together to bring proven programs to these communities. The poorest could even raise the first donations. Citizens at all levels would help to raise the rest. We would have 15 years to plan and implement this initiative.
Georgetown University economist Harry Holzer’s research shows that the costs of child poverty total $500 billion every year, or 4 percent of gross domestic product. The nation’s finances need our initiative. It would be a massive task. But like launching the republic — and ending slavery, polio and World War II — impossible tasks are part of American history.
Expanding the nation’s middle class would create a significant asset for our democracy. The Declaration Initiative could create a shared vision, a safe space for productive discussions, and the freedom for funders and implementers to test, evaluate and scale up the best ideas. This is exactly the work freely generous Americans do together.
Imagine the global response to an announcement of the Declaration Initiative’s mission, that all Americans are really able to access life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by July 4, 2026.
Worlds of terrorism, violence and greed would face old-time American values. For 15 years, we could lead from our idealism, optimism and industrious entrepreneurialism on behalf of justice for all.
Conservatives, centrists and liberals together would express tribute to the Founders’ aspirations for a republic where all men are created equal and fellow citizens freely sacrifice to make the aspirations true to life.
Many investors in the Declaration Initiative will come from families of the Greatest Generation, as I do. My father was a pilot, navigator and gunner in his P-51. Having flown many solo missions, been shot down and taken prisoner in Japan, he taught me that as an American, there was nothing I could not do if I set my mind to it.
The Declaration Initiative would be one way to envision, design, grit our teeth and co-create a future that would make our generation worthy offspring of that Greatest Generation. In a skeptical age, this work could reanimate the idea of American exceptionalism for the 21st century.
Excerpted from “Generosity Unbound: How American Philanthropy can Strengthen the Economy and Expand the Middle Class” by Claire Gaudiani. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the author of four books on philanthropy.