white star over blue circle with the text: The Philanthropy Initiative at the National Museum of American History

The Philanthropy Initiative

Throughout our history, Americans have given time and resources, shaping and reshaping the nation through philanthropy.

Giving Pledge Letters

Read the letters
Philanthropic giving pledge letters (left to right) by Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates, and Warren Buffett

Who gives?

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.

Why do we give?

Americans have given for a wide variety of reasons that have changed over time. Their motivations have ranged from feeling religious or moral obligation to concerns about societal change, from giving back to achieving social status and influence. Americans’ support of philanthropy abroad grew as the U.S. role in the world expanded in the 1900s.

How do we give?

Americans have adapted or created new ways to give over time. The growth of large foundations and mass giving can put more distance between donors and recipients. But givers can also experience the immediate impact of dropping coins in a boot or texting to contribute to disaster relief.

What do we give?

From helping a neighbor to donating entire fortunes for a cause, what Americans give is as diverse as America itself. While gifts of money often receive the most attention, donations of talent, labor, and creativity are equally significant.

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grant-making program of Fidelity Charitable.