Giving in America

This website is based on a display that opened at the National Museum of American History in November 2016. Objects pictured here may differ from those currently on view at the museum.

Giving has taken many forms throughout American history and has become firmly woven into the American experience. Every year millions of Americans contribute money, time, talent, and resources to causes across the country and throughout the world. Philanthropy is not unique to the United States, but Americans’ ideals of participation, equality, resourcefulness, and shared responsibility have shaped a distinctive form of giving in America.

The Evolution of American Philanthropy (an overview)

Boots Worn by Earl Shaffer on Appalachian Trail Hike

In 1948 Earl Shaffer became the first person to walk the entire Appalachian Trail in one continuous hike. The trail—completed in 1937 thanks to the cooperation of government agencies, private partners, and volunteers—continues to be sustained by public-private partnerships. Shaffer wore these boots when he again walked the entire trail, fifty years later.

Gift of Earl Shaffer Foundation

March of Dimes Collection Can
Mid- to Late-1900s

In the early 1900s, nationwide charitable organizations expanded their influence and increasingly relied on support from everyday donors and volunteers. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, renamed the March of Dimes, was founded in 1938 to combat polio and later shifted its mission to preventing birth defects. 

Ice Bucket Challenge bucket

Charitable giving went viral in the summer of 2014 with the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social media effort to promote ALS awareness. More than 17 million videos of participants dumping ice-cold water on their heads have been uploaded to social media websites. Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband has the degenerative nerve disease, used this bucket in launching the challenge. 

Gift of Jeanette Senerchia

Collection Box

Collection boxes have been used for centuries to solicit money for religious institutions and charities.  Even those with little to spare might contribute coins anonymously to a strategically placed box. Unfamiliar in some American communities in the 1700s, these boxes became more commonly used in the United States in the 1800s. 

Gift of Kenneth E. Jewett

Screenshot of Giving in America interactive

The Giving Pledge is a commitment by the world's wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back. The Museum holds and displays many of the letters in which signers explain their priorities and reasons for their philanthropy. Follow this link to view these letters and explore other interactive content.