Everyday philanthropists

By Amelia Grabowski
A blue mop bucket.

bucket from the Ice Bucket Challenge. A collection box from the 19th century. A toolbelt from a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. All these objects tell the story of how we give and receive, how we engage in philanthropy.

An alms box, a mop bucket, and a tool belt.

Sometimes the story is obvious when you look at the artifact—for instance, a March of Dimes donation tin. How you give, what organization you're giving to, and what that organization does with your gift are written on the tin. However, it isn't always this obvious.

A tin with a slot in the top for coins. The side of the can reads "Give to the March of Dimes. Prevent Birth Defects."

In anticipation of #GivingTuesday, I explored how objects can help us understand the many different ways Americans give. In the process, I learned both the stories in our collections and the stories of my colleagues. Many of those stories were right around me.

One of the artifacts that caught my eye was this World War I poster for the Crispus Attucks Circle. What was this circle, and what did a Revolutionary War figure have to do with World War I?

A poster featuring an African American man in combat, with advertisements for the Crispus Attucks Circle

During World War I, African Americans in Philadelphia were concerned that returning black soldiers in Philadelphia would not receive the same level of medical care as their white counterparts. Determined to address this issue, they created the Crispus Attucks Circle —named for an African American man considered the first casualty of the American Revolution—to raise money for a local African American hospital. The poster helped advertise their efforts

Mireya Loza, a curator in the Division of Work and Industry, shared an incredible story tied to an unassuming object.

An open bank passbook.


It’s a little bank book issued to my father in the ’80s for an account he opened up for a hometown association that was raising money for this little village in Guanajuato, Mexico.

The village had this tiny adobe church that was falling apart. My father had this idea that they really had to replace it with a brick and mortar structure and that the migrant community in Chicago could do that.


A photograph showing an empty landscape and a group of people on tractors.

He got together a couple of folks from that village and started a discussion: How would they tackle raising funds to rebuild this church? They decided that they'd do two things: they'd pay dues and they'd throw parties. They basically charged a cover. People cooked, and folks could come in and eat, dance, and basically have a makeshift baile—a dance. They raised the funds across four to five years, and the church was ultimately constructed.

A man sits in a chair.

I think it's an extraordinary example of working class and working poor folks really engaging and serving their community in philanthropy. And they're doing it one dollar at a time. When I was a kid, the kind of project that my dad took on to build this church was quite common. When you're in a particular moment you don't necessarily see the historical significance.

Loza's words stuck with me—there's historical significance in all of our lives. When I hear the word "philanthropist," the first thing that comes to mind is a wealthy benefactor donating millions. However, we can all be philanthropists—making a difference internationally or in our communities. When we give, we shape history.

To be a philanthropist, you don't have to give millions—you can give a little bit of money, or none at all. Philanthropists also help by sharing their time and talents.

Ken Kimery, the executive producer of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the supervisory producer of American Music History Initiatives, exemplifies this.

Ken Kimery sits behind his drum set.

As a musician, I donate my time and talent through concerts in the museum, outside the museum, educational programs, and more.

One of the moments that I recall was in 2008. The full orchestra was on a pretty extensive tour to Egypt. We insisted that the concerts and what we did during this tour not only benefit those who had the capacity to buy tickets but those who did not have the means. We presented a concert in the Cairo Opera House for orphans. That, to me, was such a highlight—being able to have an impact outside the small community that I live with here in Washington, D.C., was really powerful.

The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Egypt, in front of the pyramids.

As I've been getting to know the museum's collection, I've been discovering objects that tell all sorts of stories of people who have donated their talent and their time—sometimes in very creative ways.

A bronze colored plaque that shows the marks of age.

A modest plaque reveals a story about arborists who used the bicentennial of the Constitution to raise awareness about environmental concerns. How? They donated their time researching and locating trees that had been standing when the Constitution was signed and placed a plaque on each in order to raise awareness.

Jane Rogers, a curator in the Division of Culture and Arts, also donated her time. Rogers served as a volunteer EMT and firefighter from 1990 to 1995.

A young woman in firefighting gear holds a toddler wearing a large firefighting hat.

At the fire department where I started, in order to become a firefighter you had to be an EMT first. When a volunteer would join the department, they would be sent to training.

A firefighting helmet, patches, a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff.

While taking my EMT training course, anytime I saw a free arm, I was like, "Can I take your blood pressure?" It's really hard to do, so I bought the stethoscope and the blood pressure cuff to practice. After training, I carried those all the time, every time I went on the ambulance.

I would volunteer for one day—five hours a week. During the summer we would participate in parades, and at Christmas we would man the fire truck with Santa. The training and service took up a lot of time. For a young mother, it was a lot. But now that my kids are grown up, I am thinking of volunteering again.

A lot of times, people think of volunteer firefighters as running into burning buildings with no thought to themselves. But you don't really think like that. There is always that danger in the back of your mind. In the end you just really want to make sure people in your community are safe, so the risk is worth it.

People engage in philanthropy in so many ways, donating their money as well as their time and talent. Objects like these can help us connect to and better understand the different ways people give.

Do you give your time, talent, or treasure? Are you a philanthropist? What objects help tell your story?


Amelia Grabowski is a social media and blog assistant focusing on business and philanthropy history. 

You can share the story of how you give through our #AmericanGiving activity.

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 grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.