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.

Silver Communion Dish
Around 1764
Boston, Massachusetts

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

Library Company of Philadelphia Subscription Ticket

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

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



Jenny Lind Concert Program

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

Jewish National Fund Collection Box


Families and communities instill values of giving in many ways. In the mid-1900s, many Jewish Americans kept collections boxes for the Jewish National Fund in their homes. In addition to encouraging donations, the boxes reminded family members of their responsibility to support the Jewish community.

Gift of Judy Grinspan