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The History of Global Charitable Giving: Why We Need to Remember

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Eileen Head Shot_revisedSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Eileen Heisman

NPT Logo_revisedPhilanthropy is a $358 billion sector in the United States. It touches everyone’s lives in one way or another. Despite this, we rarely take a moment to think about how it began and how it grew to have such a massive influence on our world. Despite the unprecedented access afforded to us by the internet, it still isn’t easy to learn about the history of philanthropy.

Why We Created HistoryofGiving.org

I travel frequently for my job at National Philanthropic Trust (NPT). When I travel, I like to learn more about the charitable traditions of the places I visit, but the information isn’t always easily available. I also teach a class on philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, and my students run into the same problem when trying to find historical philanthropic information. This has reinforced my feeling that we in the social sector need an organized, easily-accessible resource to help us research and remember our origins.

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Library of Congress

NPT has a desire to expand our knowledge of philanthropy, so this along with my experiences traveling and teaching has led us to create A History of Modern Philanthropy. In Spring 2016, NPT launched the HistoryofGiving.org website that houses A History of Modern Philanthropy, which examines the past 500 years of global philanthropy. We partnered with historians and web developers to create the site, and each entry represents a historical theme in philanthropy around the world to collectively convey the breadth the sector. Visitors can read through the entire story, explore single moments, or dive deeper into any of the five time periods that segment the 500-year timeline. In total, HistoryofGiving.org highlights 200 moments in philanthropic history.

A History of Modern Philanthropy aims to inspire today’s philanthropists by sharing the stories of the important moments, philosophies and people in philanthropic history. Our goals in creating the updated and expanded version were to:

  • Cover the global history of philanthropy
  • Explore how philanthropy evolved into the practices we know today
  • Expand what we define as “philanthropy,” and
  • Demonstrate the enormous impact philanthropists can have on the world

Philanthropy: A Global Tradition

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Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

There’s a misperception that philanthropy, which means “love of mankind,” is an American concept. In fact, the word “philanthropy” does not enter the English language until approximately 1600, shortly before the publication of the King James’ Bible in 1611.

Cultures around the world have unique approaches to charitable giving, from the traditions of haoshi (Chinese) to harambee (Zulu) to tzedaka (Hebrew), and more. We want donors to ask themselves, how do these different forms of philanthropy from all over the world influence the way I give today?

Exploring Philanthropy’s Origins

A History of Modern Philanthropy’s first entry is from 1526, when Juan Luis Vives published “De Subventione Pauperum” (“On the Subvention of Paupers”). The ideas in his essays, which hold civil authorities responsible for poor relief to maintain societal order, became a model for future laws designed to fight poverty in Europe and the American colonies.

On Dec. 1, 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares over their lifetimes on #GivingTuesday. Zuckerberg and Chan are among a new generation of young, entrepreneurial philanthropists who are adapting charitable tools and traditions to fit a changing world.

What happened between those two dates that influenced how the world and philanthropy evolved? A History of Modern Philanthropy explores this question. Today’s philanthropists are part of a centuries-long tradition of questioning social practices or problems through philanthropy, and each choice or donation we make today will continue that story for centuries to come.

Expanding the Definition of Philanthropy

Another goal in creating A History of Modern Philanthropy is to examine what we see as “philanthropy.” Philanthropy isn’t just giving money to a charity. It can include:

  • Social practices: The tradition of state philanthropy in China dates back to at least the Sung Dynasty in the 10th
  • Creating charitable institutions: Quaker schoolmaster Anthony Benezet founded the first public girls school in America in 1754 and created the African School in Philadelphia in 1770. Benezet established these schools with the strong conviction that children of all races and genders should be able to learn.
  • Using skills or knowledge to benefit a larger community: The money the National Foundation for Infant Paralysis raised in 1954 was used to sponsor clinical trials for Jonas Salks’ polio vaccine. The trial proved the vaccine is safe and effective, and the vaccine later saved thousands of lives.
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Library of Congress

It’s important that we expand our definition of philanthropy to better understand the ways in which we can make an impact. Charitable giving and action take many forms—all of which change the world for the better.

Inspiring Today’s Philanthropic Impact

Anyone can be a philanthropist and create impact in their communities, and this is something we can see across time through the history of philanthropy. The site gives examples of the charitable contributions individuals, organizations and corporations of all sizes can make.

  • Coca-Cola and Citibank: Corporations sponsor Hands Across America, a benefit in which millions of Americans hold hands in a path across the country. The event raises $15 million to fight hunger and homelessness.
  • The Society for Maternal Charity: A group of Parisian noblewomen come together to offer new mothers practical and moral advice, clothing and small monthly funds with the goal of strengthening family bonds and reducing child abandonment by impoverished parents.
  • Oseola McCarthy: A lifelong washerwoman donates $150,000—half her life’s savings—to the University of Southern Mississippi immediately upon retirement.

The historic accomplishments and generosity of philanthropic individuals and organizations should be an inspiration to the donors of today, no matter their size. We hope philanthropists, both large and small, realize the impact their generosity can have on humanity.

Part of NPT’s mission is to increase philanthropy in society. A History of Modern Philanthropy provides students, organizations and donors with a single, well-researched digital resource that connects key events to larger trends in philanthropy. It is a tool that allows us to reflect on who we are as philanthropists, where we come from, the traditions that we are following and continuing, and the diversity of what it means to be “philanthropic.” By recognizing this history, we can build a stronger sector and inspire new generations of philanthropists to continue the tradition.


Eileen Heisman is a 30+ year philanthropy expert and CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, one of the Top 25 grantmaking institutions in the US.

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