Guest Commentary: National Philanthropy Week, Nov. 12-18: Celebrating Fairfield County's generosity

Fairfield County residents are well known for their generosity and compassion for neighbors in need. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent outpouring of support and the coming together of communities to help those in our towns, county, state and region hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. As we celebrate National Philanthropy Week, it is gratifying to know that we continue to be among the most generous Americans.

Fairfield County ranks 10th out of the 3,115 counties in total giving in the United States. In 2008 — the most recent date comprehensive data is available from the IRS — Fairfield County residents gave a total of $1.3 billion. The average household gave $2,497, or 3.6% of their annual income. Our local corporations and hundreds of foundations and institutions also provided millions in support to organizations and residents in Fairfield County as well as across the country and the globe.

Here at the Fairfield County Community Foundation, this week and every week, I am reminded just how fortunate we are to live in a county where so many care so much about their neighbors. Last year, the foundation and our donors provided more than $16.6 million in grants and scholarships to nonprofits and students in Fairfield County and beyond. Since our founding, we have provided more than $151 million.

But effective philanthropy goes far beyond simple charitable donations, and the challenges we face as a community require us to do more.

Fairfield County is among the richest in the country, yet we have greater and more significant disparity in economic and social indicators than 95% of communities across America. We have some of the greatest schools, yet there is an ever-widening achievement gap between our urban and suburban students. We offer our residents great opportunities, yet many live in poverty, lack health care coverage and struggle each month to find affordable housing and child care.

We have done well by our neighbors, yet we can do better.

If Fairfield County is to achieve its full potential, we must all work together to tackle these complex and systemic challenges. We must collaborate to ensure that all of our schools provide students the same chance to succeed, that every family has a safe and affordable roof over their head, that our parents and grandparents can age safely and comfortably in the community they call home and that the skills of our workers match the jobs of tomorrow.

There is a role for everyone to play. Our government leaders must work together to address regional challenges that go beyond town borders. Our businesses must commit to the well-being of their employees and the communities in which they prosper. Our nonprofits and service agencies must strive to do more with the resources they have and focus on making a meaningful, measurable impact in residents’ lives. And, yes, our residents must be willing to continue to give generously.

Together, we are working to address these challenges through partnerships in education, housing, health care, job training and more. We are making a difference.

I invite you to join us as we embrace the full meaning of philanthropy, this week and every week to follow.

Come to the table, there’s a place for you.

Juanita T. James is president and CEO of Fairfield County Community Foundation in Norwalk.