Are Americans a giving people?

Of course we are.

The results of the latest Giving USA survey, the oldest and most respected annual survey of American philanthropy, reinforce the truism that Americans donate generously to charitable causes. But the data also shows that the willingness of Americans to give to charity has limits. The question for all of us who care about this country is: can those limits be pushed a little farther?

The study, published June 17 by the Chicago-based Giving USA Foundation and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, revealed that 2013 was a banner year for philanthropy. Total giving reached $335 billion, the fourth straight year of growth in the nonprofit sector. Within a year or two, Americans will surpass the $349 billion high water mark for donations that was set in 2007, the year before the financial meltdown. The economy has rebounded – if not as quickly or as wholly as we would like – and most Americans feel confident enough in their own situations to give something to a charitable organization.

How generous are Americans compared with citizens of other nations? An exact statistical comparison of, say, America to Sweden, is hard to come by since there are few, if any country-wide-surveys of philanthropic giving outside of the United States. But what is clear is that most other wealthy, industrialized nations have higher tax burdens than the United States and offer free or lower cost education and health care – two areas that Americans support. It’s safe to say that, in terms of total dollar amount and as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, no other nation matches the United States in charitable giving.

But that doesn’t mean we should be patting ourselves on the backs.

Since 1973, charitable giving has hovered at about 2 percent of GDP, according to Giving USA. That number reached a low of 1.6 percent in 1978 and climbed to 2.1 percent in 2003, but generally hasn’t moved much one way or another. Why can’t the figure be higher? While the figure of 10 percent proscribed in the Bible may be out of reach – especially for a nation growing increasingly secular – 3 percent or 5 percent seems like a figure that is within the realm of possibility. Imagine the good that could be accomplished, the positive social change that could be enacted, if Americans doubled their philanthropic output. We are a nation that believes in nonprofit and looks to partnership between government, the nonprofit sector and the corporate sector to solve problems. Why can’t it be so?

I sit on Giving USA’s editorial review board and the day the report was released, I gave presentations on the data alongside Patrick Rooney, associate dean of academic affairs at Indiana University’s Lilly School. In both presentations, Rooney briefly removed his empirical, academic hat and stepped into the role of cheerleader for philanthropy. He posed this challenge: What if most American households gave up a $5 daily cappuccino or something similar? Rooney said that if all American households with the means to do so set aside $5 a day for charity, American household giving would double. Our charitable output would equal 4 percent of GDP.

Far-fetched? Impossible? Whoever thought that asking people to set aside dimes would help fund a cure for Polio? What nonprofits need to do today is capture the imagination and hopes of Americans the way the March of Dimes did in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Nonprofits need to demonstrate and articulate their added value to the American people. They need to use the most contemporary means of communication, delivering the most compelling content, to inspire donors. Of course, some nonprofits are doing these things, but too many are not.

Donors and nonprofits must each do their part if we are to bring about more good, advance more change and see more citizens reach their true potential. If each of us enters into a covenant to elevate a commitment to philanthropy, a commitment to making America an even more philanthropic society, the possibilities are limitless.