A Brief History of Charitable Giving

Charitable activity is intrinsic to humans and apparent across millennia. There is great cultural momentum behind charity work and giving, but how did this momentum develop? To understand the charitable impulse better, read a brief history of charitable giving for insight.

Religious Principles

Before the Greek word philanthropy (“love of man”) came about, people served the poor through their own resources. Many of the most fervent servants lived out religious principles that encouraged giving. Written into Hebrew law were provisions for the poor in the community to receive sustenance. Islamic principles such as awqaf created space for charitable service within the Ottoman empire in the 1500s. These and other religious influences continued throughout history to motivate charity.

Rome & China: Centralized Philanthropy

As power centralized into fewer hands, larger state-sponsored philanthropic gestures were possible. After this, more and more federal forms of philanthropy grew. Some examples include Rome and China. When Augustus was emperor, he secured financial support for thousands of people using the empire’s funds. China’s Song Dynasty dating back to the 10th century A.D. allowed for orphanages, soup kitchens, and more programs which, though not always supported by succeeding dynasties, continued into the late Ming Dynasty in 17th century A.D. Later, China would be one of the first to open homes for seniors who didn’t have families who could support them.

American Individual Giving

While not all positive, the American spirit of fleeing persecution to create a new society where anyone could succeed, gave rise to intentional giving by those who found success. One hallmark of the philanthropic movement is Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good, written in 1710. He was a vital early advocate for individual charitable giving in the U.S. His work, among a generally more individualistic culture, propelled magnates who gained money once the Industrial Revolution took hold in the mid-1800s and beyond to give generously. For example, John D. Rockefeller, a rich oil tycoon, committed significant individual funds to philanthropy. This tradition continues today with Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, which rich individuals sign, promising to give their money away to charitable causes.

Reform & War

Come the turn of the 20th century, many people gave to support common causes such as war and reform. Many gave and organized around causes such as the World Wars, India’s freedom from Britain, the American Civil Rights movement, Anti-Apartheid, the Environmental movement, and more. Today, American charitable giving strives to address poverty and environmental causes. A large percentage of households give today due to the long history of philanthropy in the country, around the world, and throughout time.

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Charity and donations