Americans have always participated in giving, although the notion of who is responsible for philanthropy has changed over time. Colonial Americans believed charity was an obligation owed by the wealthy to those in need. But by the Revolutionary War, all kinds of Americans began to participate in giving and volunteerism. Today most Americans practice some form of giving.
Silver Communion Dish
Community leaders in early America often gave valuable gifts to their churches. Thomas Hancock funded the purchase of this communion dish to Boston’s Brattle Street Church. Such gifts helped establish a wealthy donor as an important member of the congregation and helped cement their legacy.
Bequest of Arthur Michael
Fire Engine Panel Painting, "Benjamin Franklin with a Loaf of Bread"
Benjamin Franklin came to believe that society’s needs could be addressed through the mutual action and generosity of like-minded individuals. He pioneered models of community fundraising and public-private partnerships in Philadelphia, leading to the establishment of libraries, hospitals, and fire companies.
Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection
Jenny Lind Bottle
During her U.S. tour, from 1850 to 1852, Swedish opera star Jenny Lind donated her concert proceeds to various local charities. Master showman P. T. Barnum promoted her philanthropy, demonstrating for American audiences that her character was as admirable as her voice.
Gift of Sarah Ella Cummings
Bust of Andrew Carnegie
Made by John Massey Rhind
In the late 1800s philanthropy became increasingly associated with the very wealthy, as a generation of new millionaires founded public institutions. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie influenced the future of philanthropy by giving away most of his wealth and arguing that the rich were the best judges of how their money could benefit the common good.
Loan from National Portrait Gallery, gift of Jean Bertram Burke Underhill; conserved with funds from Smithsonian Women’s Committee
Crispus Attucks Circle Fundraising Poster
African American soldiers returning from World War I faced substandard medical care. The Philadelphia-based Crispus Attucks Circle, named for a black man killed during the 1770 Boston Massacre, attempted to raise funds to guarantee better care. The effort failed in part because of U.S. War Department resistance.
Courtesy of Princeton University Poster Collection, 1906–1950, Archives Center, National Museum of American History