If you've ever wanted to be as good a person as your dog thinks you are but feared you'd never reach your dog's standards, Think Again. Recently, when speaking before the Rotary Club of Aspen, one of more than 33,000 Rotary clubs worldwide, I discovered a treasure trove of virtue — they're called Rotarians.
As if powdered slopes beckon, dozens of Aspen's most respected and engaged residents rise early on Thursdays to enjoy breakfast, social networking and a guest speaker. Most important, they uphold a uniquely American ethic — they ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country. United by a commitment to “be beneficial and fair to all concerned,” Aspen Rotarians are as recognizable for their business, civic and other nonprofit leadership as they are for the Ducky Derby, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Rotary proudly stands with the Salvation Army, Boy and Girl Scouts, March of Dimes and the Red Cross (among others) as a pillar of American civil society and one of the world's most philanthropic community-service organizations. All “made in America” though exported globally, these are the grassroots organizations that serve the public good and prove Margaret Meade's assertion that “a small group of thoughtful people (can) change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Because they're so effective in minimizing social problems and catalyzing voluntary action, Americans strongly prefer (by 2-to-1) community-based welfare organizations like Rotary to the federal government. That's why we mustn't let lawmakers undermine Americans' prerogative to allocate our own charitable dollars by reducing the tax deductibility of charitable donations, for volunteer organizations like Rotary possess many advantages.
By engaging the community and youth groups in fundraising and community service, Rotarians raise “social entrepreneurs” who experience philanthropy, volunteerism and the benefits of hard work as they enhance lives at home and beyond. It's a virtuous cycle when Rotary's beneficiaries become healthier, smarter and more secure and when kids follow the footsteps of charitable role models.
This distinctly American impulse to marshal charitable and volunteer resources to realize big projects and shape destinies is in our national DNA — from Ben Franklin, who founded the first volunteer fire department, to Andrew Carnegie, who funded the establishment of public libraries across the country, to Bill Gates, whose philanthropic partnerships (including with Rotary International) are helping eradicate malaria and polio.
The volunteer instinct is also the essence of “American exceptionalism,” which was celebrated by political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1831 book “Democracy in America.” On his extensive tour of America, Tocqueville noted that Americans, unlike Europeans, relied not on the government or local noblemen to solve problems but on community-based voluntary associations formed by like-minded citizens. “In every case,” he said, “at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government ... in the United States you are sure to find an association.”
Coming from a French society ruled by aristocrats, Tocqueville marveled at the extent to which ordinary citizens participated in public affairs and how the social classes collaborated to support the needy. “I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needed, they almost always gave each other faithful support,” he said.
However, Tocqueville knew it wasn't altruism, but self-interest, that fuels American volunteerism. When Forrest Gump explained, “'Cause I was a gazillionaire, and I liked doin' it so much, I cut that grass for free,” he clarified why Americans “do good” — good deeds inspire self-pride and happiness.
Scientific data prove the relationship between virtue and happiness, according to Arthur Brooks, whose book “Gross National Happiness” reveals several surprising conclusions, including: People who are charitable are 43 percent more likely to say they are very happy than those who aren't; the only way to buy happiness is to be charitable; happiness comes from work, not leisure; and charitable people are healthier and more successful, on average.
As the most charitable nationality in the world, Americans consistently rank among the happiest. Each year approximately 70 percent of Americans donate more than $300 billion to charity, more than the entire gross domestic product of all but about 30 countries and multiple times more per capita than other wealthy nationalities.
Two thousand years ago, the ancient sage Rabbi Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who shall be? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Hillel would be delighted to behold an America whose national greatness (and happiness) is predicated on his ethics.
So next time a Rotarian asks you to buy a duck for the derby, Think Again. Your dog's love doesn't depend on it, but your happiness will.