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.

Silk Embroidery by Rachel Breck Hooker

Here Charity is idealized as a woman handing bread to a small child outside her home. The allegorical image reflects a personal relationship between donor and recipient. Beyond such direct giving, communities in the early 1800s began to establish institutions to deal with the needs of an increasingly mobile population.

Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood

Salvation Army Brochure

Courtesy of Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Bonnet Worn by Salvation Army Worker

Today the Salvation Army is best known for collecting funds during the holidays. But the evangelical group began in the 1880s founding rescue missions across the nation. Although care for the poor became increasingly secular in the late 1800s with the rise of social welfare professionals, religious groups continued to play a crucial role. 

Gift of National Association of Social Workers through Josephine A. V.  Allen and Josephine Nienel

Income Tax Form 1040 for 1917 Including “Contributions to Charitable Organizations”

With the 1917 Revenue Act, Congress introduced income tax deductions for charitable donations in order to encourage private philanthropy. The tax code has shaped how we give by promoting tax incentives over government subsidies to charities, while also determining which charities are eligible. 

Christmas Seals Poster

The development of mass fundraising drives in the early 1900s allowed many Americans to extend their charitable reach. American social worker Emily Bissell began selling Christmas seals in 1907 to raise money for tuberculosis care. Funds collected by the stamps supported the organization that eventually became the American Lung Association.

Fill the Boot Fundraising Drive

Throughout the 1900s, national fundraising efforts became annual traditions in communities throughout the United States. At street corners across the nation, the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Fill the Boot campaign has raised funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association since 1954

Courtesy of International Association of Fire Fighters

Fireman’s Boot, Station 40 in Fairfax County, Virginia

Gift of Joel Kobersteen, Master Technician and IAFF Local 2068 coordinator for Fairfax County’s MDA campaign

Psychological Test, Published by the Russell Sage Foundation

In the early 1900s, wealthy philanthropists applied their resources and organizational expertise to establishing foundations, often to support issues that would otherwise be underfunded. The Russell Sage Foundation was founded in 1907 and supports research in the social sciences. 

Gift of Samuel Kavruck

T-Shirt, Race for the Cure

Marathons, races, walks, and rides dot the annual calendars of nearly every major American city and allow participants to raise money for a cause. Many participants describe a desire to do more than just write a check. In engaging, they also encourage friends and family to fund their participation.

LG ENV mobile phone used in "Text to Haiti" campaign

Television, mobile phones, and the Internet are just a few of the technologies that have fostered creative ideas for raising funds and simplified giving. It is now easier than ever to give to a cause, and the increased use and impact of technology presents Americans with more causes from which to choose.

Direct Mail Charity Requests

American charities began to experiment with direct mail fundraising after World War II, sending donation appeals to individual homes. Direct mail became increasingly successful with the introduction of zip codes in 1963 and the widespread use of computers in the 1970s. Today nonprofits mail billions of solicitations a year.  

Promotional Kit, The United Way

In the late 1800s, church leaders and social reformers began organizing to raise funds and coordinate charitable services. Through the 1900s, community chests and other groups grew to become professional organizations. Many of these groups eventually merged into one organization, which officially adopted the name The United Way in 1970. 

Giving USA: Facts about Philanthropy

The work of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, formed in 1935, helped to professionalize fundraising and further linked philanthropy with large-scale fundraising and giving. It began publishing fundraising statistics and trends in 1955 with its annual Giving USA report, highlighting the philanthropic profession’s positive impact.

Courtesy of Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Drawings by Rip Rapson for Kresge Foundation Board


Starting in the early 1900s, wealthy philanthropists established foundations to address issues over the long term. In recent years, some foundations have adapted their missions to meet today’s concerns. Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson drew this picture to help board members conceptualize a new focus for the nearly 100-year-old organization.

Print by New Urban Arts, Providence, Rhode Island


Students and mentors of the Rhode Island arts organization New Urban Arts worked together to make this print to help raise funds for the group. New Urban Arts emphasizes youth leadership and collaborative approaches to shaping the direction of the organization. It has been recognized nationally as a model for out-of-school programs working with underserved youth. 

Gift of New Urban Arts