Was Benjamin Franklin the father of American philanthropy?

Benjamin Franklin's reputation for invention and inventiveness looms large in our national imagination: Franklin stoves, Poor Richard's Almanac, bifocals, and of course that whole key and kite experiment. But many Americans do not connect Franklin with inventing a new form of American philanthropy. 

Sheet of money, "US Ten"


 Man's three-piece silk suit in tan and white with white socks and black shoes

The question of Franklin's role in the development of American giving does come with some caveats. Colonial Americans were charitable long before Franklin, as were their European forbearers. In fact, American aid for the poor and needy was rooted in European (and especially English) law going back to the 1600s, and the religious traditions of nearly every major world denomination that stretched back millennia. So Americans did not invent philanthropy, nor was it unique to America in Franklin's day, which is also true today—giving and charity happens all over the world and across cultures.

However, what we can say is that the ways in which colonial (and later newly-independent) Americans organized their giving and understood the process of giving was unique. And that uniqueness centered on the question of hierarchy. In the decades before Franklin and his peers, charity typically flowed from the top down—from church organizers and community leaders who gathered and administered funds and services. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, roused his shipboard followers on the way to the New World with a sermon "The Model of Christian Charity" that literally opened with, "In all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission."

How's that for a pep talk?! But it illustrated the early instincts of giving that shaped America: help flowed from the high and powerful to the low and needy. It came from the top, be it a king, a church, a governor, or a master—a term applied equally to someone with apprentices or slaves.

It was this system of patronage and deference that Franklin chafed against. His experience as an apprentice to a printer led him to wonder why his questions and ambitions could only be funneled through—and addressed by—a master. It was a challenge of authority that later led him at age 21 to found the Junto, a group of similar young men from across professions whose association allowed them to pool their resources—books, contacts, paper, knowledge, and news—horizontally across a network of peers, rather than rely on a vertical power structure where aid could only come from above. This may not seem very revolutionary or charitable, but it ended up being both.

Wooden apparatus with metal rod

From the 1730s through the 1750s, as Franklin matured and gained both success and an audience in his adopted home of Philadelphia, he applied what was essentially the same question over and over again: why shouldn't everyday people organize to create organizations and structures that benefited them, rather than rely on systems of patronage and largess from above? When Franklin applied that question to the pursuit of knowledge, the answer emerged for a subscription-based library, in which financial resources were pooled for the common good of buying books that could then be lent to subscribers—a little bit of money drawn from many, rather than one large amount from one. When applied to public safety, the idea of a volunteer fire company emerged. Franklin was also cannily aware that small donations might not stretch far enough and looked for ways to marry the two systems, linking everyday contributions with larger commitments from traditional, top-down institutions like the legislature. Thus when his basic question of the common good was applied to public health, a public-private partnership for a new Philadelphia hospital was born.

Painting of Ben Franklin in red

It is not difficult to see how this whirling of Franklin's mind allowed him to so easily embrace the revolutionary idea of a nation independent from a monarchy. But his organizing in Philadelphia also served his future revolutionary-self in another way: it honed his ability to write persuasively. Each of these new ideas required a persuasive fundraising pitch in order for people to contribute. Franklin quickly discerned that the best fundraising ultimately rested on finding the right balance of emotion-producing rhetoric and hard-nosed benefits for the donor. It is a balance that every fundraising professional today (and politician for that matter) still has to strike.

Hat with portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Americans have never fully given up on the idea of powerful individuals and institutions delegating resources as they see fit. Everything from government-backed aid programs to foundations' charitable agendas matches this top-down model. But what Franklin introduced was an alternative way of thinking about the redress of needs—a way that strived to be more democratic, egalitarian, creative, and resourceful, much like the new nation itself. This idea has carried forward to the present day in everything from community-backed efforts to build new schools or libraries, to national organizations built on small donations from across the country.

So today we embrace Franklin as the Founding Father who believed in the common good: that government and individuals could come together to better society through the concept of public-private partnerships. Philanthropy is not an American invention but it was shaped by one of America's greatest inventors and innovators who helped envision, and ultimately propel a new form of giving into the future.

Daniel Gifford is the museum's manager of museum advisory committees and a project historian.