The business of philanthropy


Editor’s note: Today’s post is written by guest scholar Dr. Amanda Moniz, who recently met with the American Enterprise team to discuss the history of philanthropy and its relationship to business in the United States.

When I tell people I study philanthropy in the late 1700s, I often get surprised looks. Was there philanthropy back then? The word comes from Greek and the literal translation is “love of mankind.” Perhaps the best way to define what I’m referring to when I talk about philanthropy then or now is “efforts to promote social betterment.”

As I’ve talked with people over the years, I’ve discovered that Americans often think that philanthropy arose in the Gilded Age, is distinct to the United States, and is something very rich individuals do outside of their business lives, perhaps to atone for business sins.

A closer look at the history of American philanthropy, however, tells a longer, more cosmopolitan, and more democratic story. I recently had the opportunity to talk with the American Enterprise curators about the philanthropy sections of the exhibit and encouraged them to keep three points in mind.

Americans have always reached beyond the nation’s borders through philanthropy.
Boston merchant Thomas Russell was president of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a charity devoted to the rescue and resuscitation of drowning victims (with no relation to the animal-rescue groups.) Massachusetts men had founded the group in 1786 based on the example of a similar London charity, the Royal Humane Society. The two humane societies corresponded regularly to share new ideas in lifesaving, encourage each other’s work, and keep track of the movement’s success. Future philanthropists would likewise borrow from and cooperate with foreign counterparts. But Americans did not just follow. In 1792, Thomas Russell sent a sizeable donation to the Royal Humane Society to help it set up humane societies “throughout the world.” Americans could lead, his gift said, and the new nation would be engaged with people beyond its shores.

American philanthropy is not separate from business, but intertwined with it.

No organization illustrates that point better than the American Bible Society (ABS). The ABS was established in 1816 to distribute the Good Book and foster social harmony throughout a fractious country. Initially, prominent men volunteered their time to manage the group. Over time, however, the ABS became a corporate bureaucracy run by full-time, paid staff. In addition, the ABS embraced the most up-to-date printing technologies and labor-saving practices of the mid-nineteenth century to produce its Bibles. Moreover, the ABS competed with commercial publishers to offer a variety of Bibles to appeal to middle-class tastes. Dedicated to spreading the word of God, the ABS’s familiarity with Mammon highlights that philanthropy is both creature and creator of capitalism.

An 1852 New Testament published by the American Bible Society.


Many people, not just the very rich, have shaped American philanthropy.

Broad participation in charitable and civic activities dates back centuries, but organized giving became a mass phenomenon in the twentieth century. Christmas seals were one of the first mass philanthropy techniques. In 1907, crusading photographer Jacob Riis introduced Americans to the idea from his native Denmark of special fundraising postal seals. Starting that year, Christmas seals were sold to raise money for the prevention and cure of tuberculosis. Riis had urged average Americans to fund the fight against TB, and by the 1961, the “people themselves” had raised $500 million for the National Tuberculosis Association. Americans have given both their time and billions more to a huge range of causes in the century since the emergence of mass philanthropy.

I don’t say all that when I’m asked whether there really was philanthropy before Carnegie and Rockefeller, because by the time I’m starting to mutter some answer about the 1700s being known as the “Age of Benevolence,” I have to respond to another comment. “Gee, that sounds pretty esoteric,” people say. Real history, as they have learned it, is about major events and prominent people. Historians think about it differently. We study change over time and recognize that the decisions and actions of many have contributed to notable, even world-changing, developments. The transformation of traditional local and personal charity into a global, business-oriented, mass enterprise is one example.

A 1939 Christmas seal poster by the artist Rockwell Kent.


How have you and your family participated in the development of American philanthropy?

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    About the Author


    Amanda MonizAmanda Moniz received her Ph.D. in History at the University of Michigan. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University and has taught at Catholic University and American University. She is currently working on a book about how Americans and Britons used philanthropy as a force for transatlantic reconciliation after the American Revolution.View all posts by Amanda Moniz

    • Rlenter


    • Richard F.

      I really enjoyed Dr. Moniz’s thought-provoking account of examples of early american philanthropy that peels away many of our common suppositions about how philanthropy started. Thank you for the succinct and insightful history lesson!

    • Close Reader

      Very interesting to think about how philanthropy and business copied each other’s practices. Do you think philanthropy was ever in the lead– that it created organizational forms before business, and business learned from them?

      • Amanda Moniz

        Life insurance is one instance of philanthropy leading business.  Life insurance began as a charitable endeavor, much like mutual-aid societies organized by affinity group (religious, ethnic, occupational), and later evolved into a business enterprise.