Discriminating Benevolence

Title: Discriminating Benevolence

Date: October 26, 1924

Location: Washington, D.C.

Context: A speech delivered by phone to the Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York assembled at the Hotel Pennsylvania

When the Committee representing your Federation brought me the invitation to address you this evening, I did not receive them with any very profound enthusiasm. To be confidential for a moment, I may confess that an invitation to make a speech is not the rarest experience that comes into a President’s life. But I listened with, I hope, proper politeness, down to the point where your spokesman started explaining that you were to devote an evening to the consideration of a budget. Then I began to take real interest, for the budget idea, I may admit, is a sort of obsession with me. I believe in budgets. I want other people to believe in them. I have had a small one to run my own home; and besides that, I am the head of the organization that makes the greatest of all budgets-that of the United States Government. Do you wonder, then, that at times I dream of balance sheets and sinking funds, and deficits, and tax rates, and all the rest?

Yes, I regard a good budget as among the noblest monuments of virtue. It is deserving of all emulation; but there are other topics that afford more obvious inspiration to popular oratory. So when I found that you actually wanted a budget speech, I felt a warming sense of gratitude.

Anybody who would deliberately ask for a budget speech ought to be accommodated. I accepted the invitation, and now I want to begin by extending my hearty compliments to my audience. Your practical interest in the budget plan, your adoption of it as the basis of your great charity system, is a fine accomplishment. Wherever the same plan has been adopted, in the financing of benevolences, philanthropies and charities through the “Community Chest” method, it has been productive of the best results. It has eliminated the waste of indiscriminate charity; but that is not by any means its most commendable accomplishment. Far more useful, I think, is the service it has done in organizing these works of human helpfulness so that we may be sure they will not do more harm than good. Nothing is finer than the open hand and the generous heart that prompt free and unselfish giving. But modern social science knows, also, that ill-directed charity is often directly responsible for encouragement of pauperism and mendicancy.  The best service we can do for the needy and the unfortunate is to help them in such manner that their self-respect, their ability to help themselves, shall not be injured but augmented. Nobody is necessarily out merely because he is down. But, being down, nobody gets up again without honest effort of his own. The best help that benevolence and philanthropy can give is that which induces everybody to help himself.

Your Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies in New York is the central financial agency, I am told, for no less than ninety-one various philanthropies, which receive annual support aggregating $7,000,000. Among them are hospitals, orphanages, a great relief society, a loaning organization, a home for Aged and Infirm. The Young Men’s Hebrew Association and the Young Women’s Hebrew Association do social and educational work of the greatest value. Especial attention is devoted indeed to educational effort for which technical schools are maintained. That is, of course, precisely what we should expect from a great Jewish organization; for the Jews are always among the first to appreciate and to utilize educational opportunities.

Into this entire system of communal services, reaching to every possible department of social relations, the Federation brings order and a proper inter-relationship. Duplication of services, which always means multiplication of expense and division of results, is avoided. The man or woman who gives through this agency, knows that the most good will be done, at the least expense. All administrative costs of the organization have averaged less than four cents on the dollar. Other “Community Chest” activities, which in recent years are getting spread all about the country, make like showings of efficiency and economical management. They have been able, just as your Federation has been able, to enlist the best abilities, the most skilled direction, the widest experience, in systematizing operations that ordinarily are haphazard and wasteful.

But, with all of my regard for the strictly business aspect of this splendid modern program, I must emphasize once more that to me the greatest good of these communal organizations of benevolence lies in their immeasurably greater capacity for real good. There is an impressive array of testimony that the average dollar of indiscriminate, well-meaning, ignorant donation to charity is mostly wasted. Many such dollars are far worse than wasted. You seek no cold and heartless elimination of sentiment from your charitable works. You have, however, sought to substitute sense for sentimentality; and that is altogether to be desired.

The Jewish people have always and everywhere been particularly devoted to the ideal of taking care of their own. This Federation is one of the monuments to their independence and self-reliance. They have sought to protect and preserve that wonderful inheritance of tradition, culture, literature and religion, which has placed the world under so many obligations to them. In their efforts to serve their own highest ideals, they will always be helpful to the wider community of which they are a part. In the work of this Federation they are rendering a service not only to their own people, but to the entire community. Along with that precious service, they are setting up an example of successful practical, helpful business administration which deserves all commendation. It may well be an inspiration to every charitable agency in the land.

I want you to know that I feel you are making good citizens, that you are strengthening the Government, that you are demonstrating the supremacy of the spiritual life and helping establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

Citation: Foundations of the Republic by Calvin Coolidge (1926).

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester, who prepared this document for digital publication.

9 Responses to “Discriminating Benevolence”

  1. Johnny Aragon

    I use this speech in Social Work all the time. The goal is to augment the needs of people, so they can lift themselves up and find dignity and self-respect. Anything else creates victims, and dependents who can’t do for themselves.

  2. Hye Jin Elliott

    I love how the people rely on President Calvin Coolidge and that he will be willing to share his knowledge on the budget with his people. Coolidge mentions, the unfortunate and tells the people to find their self-respect and treat them in an orderly manner. This shows Coolidge’s personality because he is helping numerous communities then tells people to help the unfortunate and become better people. This shows he wants what’s best for everyone. They ask and he gives.

  3. Talia Krumkop

    As a young Jewish American women I agree greatly with how Coolidge compliments the Jewish people. “The Jewish people have always and everywhere been particularly devoted to the ideal of taking care of their own” and “hat is, of course, precisely what we should expect from a great Jewish organization; for the Jews are always among the first to appreciate and to utilize educational opportunities.” Coolidge’s praise for the Jewish people and the things they have accomplished makes me proud of my heritage and my people.

  4. Sadie Bueler

    Coolidge’s phrase in this speech in which he said “The best service we can do for the needy and the unfortunate is to help them in such manner that their self-respect, their ability to help themselves, shall not be injured but augmented” struck me as an excellent way to describe the balance that governments must have in aiding their citizens. It is not beneficial to overly saturate the able but unfortunate as they will be much better off learning how to work to improve their own circumstances. But it is equally important to teach them how to get back on their feet and ensure they can begin their upward climb. Excellent speech.

  5. Theo Batty

    I love Coolidge’s inspiration to others and his proudness for this charity. I do not know how many politicians today would do a speech like this. I am especially influenced by his idea that a charity must help to uplift people into full functioning members of society.

  6. Oluwanifemi Bakare

    I agree with and admire Coolidge’s remarks on generosity because nothing surpasses a generous and kind heart for inspiring selfless giving. The greatest thing people can do for those in need and the unfortunate is to show respect to them, educate them, and increase awareness of their requirements so that they may assist themselves.

  7. Sakshi Khidake

    Coolidges ideas on charities is quite new to me, so it’s eye-opening to see his thought process and reasoning in why charities, and not federal welfare, are the most beneficial to those in need.

  8. Heidi A.

    I keep coming back to reread parts of this because of the character it shows. Coolidge really wanted to help his citizens budget and continue the philanthropic work they were doing. To connect on such a personal level by speaking at an event like this one is so humble. He was clearly empathetic; I love the emphasis he placed on respect and dignity.

  9. Gabrielle Hix

    When choosing a charity to make a donation to, my family and I always look into the amount of benefits that actually are given to the people and causes we want to help, rather than the administration conducting the charity’s affairs. I can see this sentiment in what Coolidge said in this speech, and think it rings true most clearly today, when charities and government subsidies aimed at assisting Americans battling extreme poverty in the face of the pandemic have generally been spread far too thin and fail to provide sufficient assistance to those in need. As Coolidge said, charities can best serve others by enabling them to serve themselves. Offering a temporary residence or low-interest grants for an education makes more of an impact than money alone, which creates a cyclic system of dependence on checks instead of an opportunity to make a living from hard work. The government is supposed to provide this help to people when they need it most, but not become a trust fund.

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