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

By Claire Gaudiani

American philanthropy packs a powerful tale about the force of wealthy givers inspiring many small donations and, in reverse, small donations inspiring major gifts from wealth.

This synergy speaks directly to the happy dynamism around generosity in America.

After Lady Molson made the first scholarship gift to Harvard College in 1647, the able sons of farmers and blacksmiths could attend the college.  This magnanimous investment in the sons of working people enabled them to become ministers and other professionals to serve the colonial citizens — for the greater good.

In 1651, the farmers of the Massachusetts colony began to voluntarily offer the college a bushel of grain or corn each year to help feed the students and faculty — perhaps the first annual fund.

Many years later, four billion dimes came to make war on polio. with thousands of Americans contributing to the Mothers March of Dimes. This new foundation had 3,000 local chapters with 90,000 year-round volunteers. Two million other volunteers worked only during the January fund drives.

Two days after the first radio broadcast seeking donations in 1938, the workings of the U.S. government were totally bogged down by the response.

Usually receiving 5,000 pieces of mail a day, FDR’s White House got 30,000 contributions the first day and, the next day, 50,000 letters showed up. Then 150,000 letters arrived.

When all the mail was opened, it was clear that the American people had contributed $1.8 million dollars, $268,000 of which had arrived at the White House a dime at a time.

Generous and fiercely competent Mary Lasker took up the charge of giving and organizing vast contributions from private donors and the federal government to improve health and to attack diseases like cancer and heart disease for starts.

She saw how much people responded to the call of leadership from the White House. She received the medal of Freedom for her life of giving to medical research.

Wealthy donors like Lady Molson probably helped inspire donations from middle- and low-income givers, and those same levels of donors probably inspired wealthy leaders like Mary Lasker.

All economic levels give.  America the beautiful.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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 Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

Helping hands [9.20.04]

Change agent [10.11.04]

Retailing generosity [10.25.04]

Prescription for change [11.22.04]

Whitewashing history [12.06.04]

Breakthrough philanthropy [12.20.04]

Critical thinking [01.03.05]

Tsunami lessons [01.17.05]

Making money [02.01.05]

Pension payoff [02.14.05]

Beyond the self [02.28.05]

Enlightened self-interest [03.14.05]

Taking chances [03.28.05]

Urban revolutionary [04.12.05]

Imaginative generosity [04.25.05]

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