Contemporary Giving


At a time of national turmoil, including domestic terrorism and other inhumane behavior, it is important to acknowledge our history of charity.


According to the Smithsonian Institution, a charity in the United States dates back to the founding of our nation.


Americans contribute money, time, talent, and resources to a broad spectrum of causes. Recently, we have seen an outpouring of charity for thousands of displaced Afgan refugees. Individuals and organizations are coming to the aid of victims of wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the south and east.


History of Institutional Charity


There is a multitude of well-known institutional charities. Television, social media, and other platforms make institutional fund-raising much more effective compared to the early years of giving in the U.S.


Pandemics are certainly not new to America. The Spanish Flu in 1918 brought out charitable giving. The polio pandemic in the early ’30s gave rise to the March of Dimes in 1938. When polio was vanquished the “March” turned to birth defects.


St Judes Hospital for Children, a well-known research hospital founded by Danny Thomas in 1962, has for 6 decades provided free medical care for children with cancer.


The Red Cross, a famous international charity, was founded in 1863 in Switzerland. It coincided roughly with the 1864 Geneva Convention and sought relief and protection for wounded soldiers. In 1881, the American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton who was a hospital nurse during the Civil War.


The Salvation Army has been very well known since its founding in London in 1865. It started operations in the United States in 1880. We are reminded of their charity every Christmas season. They stress Christian values and early on sought to convert alcoholics, morphine addicts, prostitutes, and other “undesirables”. During World War I, they sent 250 volunteers to France to provide supplies and baked goods, including doughnuts, to American soldiers. They have been providing disaster relief since the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.


Not long ago, memorial day (once known as “Armistice Day” or “Poppy Day”) was celebrated in the United States with sales and wearing of artificial poppies. The originator of Poppy Day, Madame GuĂ©rin, raised funds during World War I for soldier’s widows and orphans, and veterans.


Wealthy Individual Giving


Wealthy individuals have historically been a major source of charity. During the ‘robber-baron’ era, when the accumulation of wealth with a few individuals was at a peak, huge charitable endowments were created.


Andrew Carnegie was a steel mogul and one of the richest men in history. At the time of his death in 1919, he had given away the present-day equivalent of $100 billion to various charities and foundations.


John D Rockefeller, a ruthless founder of Standard Oil Company, at the end of the 1800s, accumulated a wealth equivalent to $423 billion in today’s dollars. Despite his ruthless business practices, he started his charitable giving at an early age. At age 16, he devoted 6% of his earnings as a clerk to charity. Among his notable giving were the founding of the University of Chicago ($80 million) and other universities. He endowed the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913 with $250 million. It still focuses on many medically related charities including the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.


Many charitable foundations have been funded by today’s wealthy such as hedge funds and tech firms. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft is among the world’s wealthiest with an estimated $144 billion net worth. He and his wife founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with assets valued at more than $30 billion. It focuses on climate change, global health, and education. The Gates foundation has joined with wealthy investor Warren Buffet for several charitable endeavors.