Stories about breakthrough philanthropy need to be told

[Editor’s note: This is the last part in a series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

In America, philanthropy has funded breakthrough thinking that has changed the country.

Stories from history recount how and where this has happened.   Contemporary citizens need to learn and teach these stories so we can keep the innovative thinking going while taking the best ideas from the highly professionalized, bureaucratized, work of giving money away.

The danger to modern America is that philanthropy may lose its vision and its reach to breakthrough solutions to modern problems.

As we get more focused on guidelines and mission statements, it becomes easy for earnest, well-organized people to gradually lose sight of the big picture.

This disaster is more likely to occur if we don’t share history, remember our philanthropic forebears, and apply the energy and imagination in the legacy they left us.

Breakthroughs occurred in concepts and in processes.

Abolition was a breakthrough concept. Colonial citizens collected funds and began the effort to free enslaved people and change the law in 1774 — two years before the Declaration of Independence.

The new idea grew and acquired supporters because citizens and donors insisted on it.

While support to widows, orphans and the elderly was not a breakthrough idea in 1830, women’s exchanges represent a new process for alleviating an old problem.

Settlement houses represent a combination: a breakthrough process for attending to poverty — but this time a new definition of poverty open to social outreach.

This time poverty meant not “just” widows and orphans, but whole families that needed help integrating into a good life in the states and neighborhoods they landed in after some migration.

Jane Addams was a breakthrough thinker and doer whose work changed America.  From one settlement house, the number grew to over 400 across the nation.  She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1932.

Criminalizing drunk driving and imagining that citizens’ donations could accelerate the pace of scientific research represent two new ideas that came from philanthropy and touched the lives of all of us, changing our culture.

Currently, Bill Gates pays philanthropic attention to distribution systems to get AIDS cocktails to Africa’s HIV/AIDS sufferers.

He is seeking a breakthrough process to assure supervised ingestion of medication over a lifetime to people in communities where many factors make this kind of medication schedule dauntingly difficult to achieve.

Penny George of the George Foundation identified a new idea, a new challenge in research and teaching involving integrative medicine.  Through her own philanthropy and her engagement of other donors, she is developing ways to bring this issue to national attention and change medical practice.

Is there a new problem such as methamphetamine use in your community that needs to have a focus put on it?

Is there an old problem that needs a new process, a fresh look to successfully address a new level of progress on the problem?


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. This column is excerpted from that book.

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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]

Donor inspiration [05.09.05]

Paying forward [05.23.05]

Systematic change [05.06.05]

Building bridges [06.20.05]

Women’s Exchanges paved way for social change [07.04.07]

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