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.

The Mansion of Happiness, an Instructive, Moral & Entertaining Amusement Board Game, B. W. Thayer & Co.

Religion has always played a large role in American giving. Religious revival movements in the early 1800s contributed to Americans’ growing understanding of charity as the responsibility of all and a path to religious salvation. 

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Purim Charity Collection Plaque
Late 19th–Early 20th Century

Giving is a fundamental part of many religions. These plaques were used during Purim, a Jewish holiday. Purim traditions include donating funds to charity, often through Jewish organizations.

Gift of Henry S. Hartogensis (through B. H. Hartogensis)

Americans of all classes sought ways to respond to the growing complexity and diversity of U.S. cities in the 1800s. Some formed voluntary associations, such as fraternal orders, to help create communal bonds, offer mutual aid to members, and support charitable work in the larger community.

Group Portrait of Members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and Their Beneficiaries

Lithograph by the Edward Sachse and Company

Courtesy of Harry T. Peters "America on Stone" Lithography Collection

Badge, Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks

Badge, Knights of Pythias of Cleveland, Ohio

Badge, Woodmen of the World
(this object will be on view in a later rotation)

Masonic Medal, owned by Mordacai Myers

Fireman’s Presentation Trumpet

The Good Will Fire Company worked across racial boundaries to aid a black community before the Civil War. The grateful “Colored women of Philadelphia” presented this trumpet in appreciation of the volunteer company’s “manly, heroic, and philanthropic efforts” in putting out fires set by rioting mobs. 

Annual Report, American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless

For much of the 1800s charity was described as a moral obligation, and women were seen as guardians of morals and virtue. Middle- and upper-class women turned these beliefs into opportunities to establish, promote, and run charities. Philanthropy provided these women, who were not allowed to vote, with alternative means of influencing public life. 

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

Bowl of Rice Party Banner

Many Americans have been motivated to aid people in their home country in times of suffering. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Chinese Americans held parades and parties to raise money for relief in China during its war with Japan.

Gift of Daniel Ostroff

After World War II, philanthropy abroad became the human face of global American influence. Cold War politics and televised news heightened U.S. concerns about world affairs and encouraged more Americans to donate to international relief. American organizations and foundations frequently funded projects led by the United Nations, founded in 1945.

United Nations Flag

Gift of William A. Stegman

United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Halloween Collection Box
Late 1900s

Plan International USA embosser

Personalizing international humanitarianism has helped charities attract support. Plan International, established in 1937, enables Americans to sponsor individual children in need abroad.

Gift of Plan International USA

Sustainable Development Goals Countdown Clock

Around 2015

In 1997, CNN founder Ted Turner stunned many when he gave $1 billion to create the United Nations Foundation to support international efforts to tackle the world’s challenges. The gift helped launch an era of bold and sometimes controversial philanthropy. This countdown clock marked the time remaining to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by United Nations member states in 2015.

Gift of United Nations Foundation

Great Central Fair Medal


During the Civil War, the U.S. Sanitary Commission provided Union soldiers with medical care, coordinated supply efforts, helped to locate missing soldiers, and offered medical and hygiene advice to the U.S. Army. The private civilian organization held fairs in several northern cities to raise money. This medal commemorated the commission’s Great Central Fair held in Philadelphia.

Gift of Carl H. Jaeschke

Wooden Turtle Given to Foundation President by a Grant Recipient


Starting in the early 1900s, wealthy philanthropists established grant-making foundations to study and address perceived social problems on an ongoing basis. 

An African grant recipient gave this carved turtle to Darren Walker when he became president of the Ford Foundation. Walker kept it on his desk as a symbol of the foundation’s long-term approach to its work. 

Gift of Darren Walker