"There are many more ways to give than by writing a
I think of
Commencement as our students' one last opportunity to
consider an idea in the company of their classmates, and
it's my job each year as speaker to come up with something
worthy of their consideration. This year, I wanted them to
leave Johns Hopkins thinking about giving back.
We Americans have long prided ourselves on the
tremendous generosity we display toward charitable causes
of all kinds. Individual Americans do in fact give, on
average, twice as much of their income to their houses of
worship and favorite charities as the next most generous
nation. And in recent years, charitable organizations have
reported record numbers of dollars received.
But if we dig down, we discover that those record
gifts are largely the result of the prosperity effect
caused by the tremendous growth in the economy and our
national wealth. In fact, giving as a percentage of income
is down — lower than it has been in 40 years. As a
nation we've been getting richer and richer — and
we've been giving a smaller and smaller share of it
There are many more ways to give than by writing a
check, of course. At the core of our system of
self-government there has always been a strong reliance on
voluntary associations of citizens coming together to do
everything from running baseball leagues to raising money
to fight cancer.
Our system of justice depends upon citizen juries, and
the political legitimacy of our leaders depends upon voter
turnout orchestrated by partisan political associations.
But here, too, the numbers are cause for concern.
In April, The Baltimore Sun revealed that every day
Baltimore Circuit Court officials summon 800 residents to
fill the jury pool and feel lucky if 250 of those summoned
actually appear. In Philadelphia and Dallas, less than a
third of jurors summoned report for duty. Two years ago in
Shelby, N.C., sheriff's deputies handed out summonses to
shoppers at the local Wal-Mart in a desperate effort to
fill out a jury pool.
The decline in voter turnout and political involvement
in our nation is well-documented. In the 1990s Americans
were about half as likely to volunteer for a political
candidate or attend a political rally as they were just 20
years earlier. And during that same 20-year period, the
number of Americans who reported attending just one public
meeting on town or school affairs within the previous 12
months declined by 40 percent.
To some, these numbers may indicate that the season of
giving is past, and that Americans are no longer willing to
sow what future generations will reap. But I don't believe
When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, across America
people's first response was to try to give back. We all
remember the long lines of people waiting patiently to give
blood that, sadly, was never needed. So many people tried
to help feed the rescue workers that soon city officials
had to say, Please, no more food.
Clearly, the desire to give back has not gone away.
But in the rush of our lives — filled with cell
phones and pagers and e-mail and the constant buzz of
activity — it can be difficult to know how to give in
a way that is both efficacious and meaningful. As
charitable and nonprofit agencies have grown more
professional, they have also become more impersonal. What
prevents many of us from giving is the feeling that our
contribution is so small as to be almost meaningless.
So often, it is the small acts of personal giving that
mean the most. At the end of last year, we learned that
professor of biological chemistry Peter Agre had been
awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. A Nobel Prize confers
a kind of celebrity, and recipients are quickly overwhelmed
with requests for their time. Dr. Agre has used his
newfound fame to give back in a very personal and
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Dr. Agre talked about
the transformative power of education, and the difference a
teacher can make in students' lives. "Early in the life of
every scientist," he said, "the child's first interest was
sparked by a teacher." And since that speech, despite the
demands of his research and the innumerable requests for
his time, Dr. Agre has been making opportunities to give
back in a unique way. He's been taking his message of the
importance of teachers into Baltimore's public schools and
other venues. He tells his audience: Look at how important
good teachers were in my own life and in what I have been
able to achieve. What you do for your students is
extraordinary, and I am here today to say thank you. Your
contributions are not only vitally important; they are also
And this is what I asked our graduates to do for us.
Starting the next day, I said, I wanted them to give back
to Johns Hopkins.
"This is not a plea for money," I said. "The greatest
gift you can give back to Johns Hopkins is your personal
integrity, hard work and the fruits of your discoveries
offered freely to others to make a better world. I am
asking that you give the knowledge you have gained here to
the world on behalf of Johns Hopkins. Give of yourselves.
When you do, I have no doubt, great things will come to us
William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins
University. This column was adapted from his address to the
graduating class on May 20, 2004.