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April 5, 1994

Generosity in Our DNA

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Every nation of the world has its own tradition of generosity. Generosity in the United States of America has a quality all its own, full of vigor and can-do optimism and colored by America’s religious history and capitalistic bent.
The early European settlers of North America saw immediately that they would have to rely upon each other’s help to make it in the New World. Puritan leader John Winthrop viewed his Massachusetts Bay colony, not only as “city upon a hill,” but also as a “model of Christian charity.”
Benjamin Franklin, who seems to have been the first to do almost everything in colonial America, was also a leader in civic responsibility. Among other things, he organized the nation’s first volunteer fire company and established the first subscription library. Modern social sector bloggers and members of giving circles may think they’re doing something original, but they are really standing in the tradition of the Junto Club that Franklin founded while still a young man. Every month he would gather a small group of businessmen at a Philadelphia tavern to lift their ale cups and talk about ways to improve themselves and benefit the community.
In the nineteenth century, a wave of social reform movements swept the country, focusing on what today we would call “causes”—abolition, temperance, women’s voting rights, and many more. Look at someone like Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, or Jane Addams, co-founder of Hull House to assist poor immigrants, and you realize that social entrepreneurs existed long before Muhammad Yunus started talking about them.
When America’s growing wealth created her first millionaires, these men began to practice philanthropy in a form we recognize today. Of course, Americans had always been giving away money, especially in the form of offerings to churches. But when a titan of commerce like Alexander Graham Bell, for example, began using his wealth to find solutions for deaf people, it was a sign that the great era of foundations and corporate giving had begun. In 1889, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he encouraged his fellow rich folks to use their wealth to improve society (foreshadow of the Giving Pledge). Carnegie and Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller established modern American philanthropy, with many more to follow in their footsteps.
After World War II, when America entered a period of greater affluence and influence in the world, the number of foundations and nonprofits of all kinds began to skyrocket. No longer was it just the wealthy who engaged closely in generosity; average folks began to see that they could be philanthropists too. The advent of the information economy in the late twentieth century put tools for innovation within reach of all. American generosity today is more participatory and diverse than ever.

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