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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Some men and women led lives that enabled them to have fortunes to invest in human capital (other people’s children), physical capital (gifts of buildings) and intellectual capital (ideas that benefit the greater good).  But in America, very high percentages of the rest of us also commit philanthropy. Let’s look at some cases.

The Mothers March of Dimes changed the world a dime at a time.

Over 17 years, citizens, mothers mostly but not exclusively, collected four billion dimes.

Door to door, these citizens made the Earth move with their philanthropy.
They not only funded the lab that found the first vaccine, but their funds also created thousands of new Ph.D.’s in microbiology who studied and worked to knock out polio and, after the vaccine was discovered, fanned out into other disease- and health-related areas to continue their search.

They did work on other disease areas, like cardio-vascular conditions, diabetes and cancer.

They also invented the idea, and taught us all, that citizens can band together to effect the pace of progress in medical research.

Now it is almost impossible to find a disease condition that does not have a society of citizens raising money to speed up the research.

Over the past 40 years, another group of mothers got active and marched on a problem.

Thousands of people, raised money and changed the social and political consensus so that drunk driving become a criminal activity.

Earlier, before these philanthropists gave us the gift of massively reduced deaths from drunk driving, whole families were killed with no penalty to the inebriated driver — even a repeat offender.

This now seems like a sick joke, but it was every day life before thousands of Americans responded with donations and volunteer time to the call of Candy Lightner, who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD.

Now, we have 3,000 laws on the books making driving drunk illegal.

In the 1880’s America’s northern cities were filling with poor people immigrating from Western Europe — Italians, Eastern Europeans, Germans, Irish and others.

These people couldn’t speak English, didn’t have urban life or work habits, and lived too many to a room in tenements with no bathing facilities and awful health conditions.

In a time without government programs to support the poor, untold numbers of citizens contributed to supporting a new idea — settlement houses.

With the brilliant example of Jane Addams, people gave money to build more than 400 settlement houses where immigrants learned English, had after-school care for children, developed jobs and even could bathe.

They became Pittsburgh’s steel workers, Detroit’s automobile workers, New York’s garment workers — the nation’s manufacturing workforce shaped by philanthropy for their own benefit and for the greater good.

Like the Mothers March of Dimes and MADD, the settlement house donors helped give us the America we know.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University. This column is adapted from her book, The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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