Philanthropy has strong roots in religious beliefs, in the history of
mutual assistance, in democratic principles of civic participation, in pluralistic
approaches to problem solving and in American traditions of individual autonomy and
The hardships of early settlers to North America, where government was
weak and distant, forced people to join together to govern themselves, to help each
other and to undertake community activities, such as building schools and churches and
fighting fires. Out of these experiences grew a tradition of citizen initiatives and
individual efforts to promote the public welfare. Later, immigrants supported
communities by giving through churches and forming groups to help the poor as well as
organizing associations to assist each other in their new homeland. Native Americans and
African Americans also had deeply rooted giving practices.
Religious leaders encouraged their members to give to the poor and to
the charitable works of their churches. Giving to needy people in their communities, to
the poor in other lands, to the victims of natural disasters and to their churches was a
strongly felt obligation for many people. Religious beliefs are still an important
motivation for being involved in philanthropy.
Early Philanthropists and Foundations
Benjamin Franklin, the inventor and statesman of the colonial era, was
an early philanthropist. He gave to improve his community and to provide opportunities
for people to help themselves. He founded local civic organizations such as the
volunteer fire company and institutions such as the Pennsylvania hospital, the
University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia public library.
It was not until the early twentieth century that individuals
generally began to use their philanthropy to seek ways to combat problems, conduct
research and promote science.
One of the early proponents of modern philanthropy was Andrew
Carnegie, a wealthy business entrepreneur. He viewed the person of wealth as a product
of natural selection by the forces of competition. By winning wealth, a person became
an Agent of civilization, and philanthropy became a tool for improving civilization
while at the same time substituting for radical reforms. His philanthropy included
starting public libraries and other agencies that would provide "ladders upon which the
aspiring can rise."
During the early years of the twentieth century, several civic and
business leaders -Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and Margaret Olivia Sage- organized
their philanthropic giving in a new form, like the business corporations that were then
so successful. The new corporate organizational structure permitted more flexibility
than charitable trusts, the traditional mode of giving featured in English law. Boards
of Directors, rather than trustees, were responsible for overseeing their operations.
Corporate foundations came later, after the concept of giving by
businesses was resolved under United States law in 1935. Corporate foundations grew at
a rapid rate during the 1940s, an era of high profits and high tax levels.