Philanthropy as a concept has a long and storied history. As an idea, it is ancient– a central tenet of many religions and schools of philosophical thought. Philanthropy as a modern concept, however, originated during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was during this time that the English parliament passed the Statute of Charitable Uses, which shifted the responsibility of taking care of the poor from the defunct Catholic Church to more secular institutions. Throughout the 17th century, private philanthropic efforts were key in the establishment of schools throughout the world– from Harvard and Yale in America to the first Japanese public schools established by Ikeda Mitsumasa in 1668.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, philanthropy became more and more the work of private individuals. One might call them “professional philanthropists.” These people were not always wealthy, though many were. They were, however, all dedicated to the public good. Early figures in this movement, like Thomas Gallaudet of Connecticut and Emma Willard of New York, raised thousands of dollars for schools, hospitals, and other public institutions.
As the industrial revolution ground on, however, the fabric of society changed. Industrial capitalists quickly accumulated wealth while the working poor became more and more destitute. In 1889, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie published his “Gospel of Wealth,” where he argued that the best use of the riches accumulated by the nouveau-riche was philanthropic. Throughout much of the 19th century, billionaire philanthropists worked parallel with professionals to meet the needs of the working class.
The work of private philanthropists continued into the 20th century. However, a series of global catastrophes, including a global economic depression and two World Wars, caused the impetus for social change to shift from individual to community efforts. Examples of this shift include American social programs like the New Deal and Great Society, which placed the onus to provide in government hands. Other community-led efforts flourished during this time as well, as social justice initiatives like the Civil Rights Movement in America and the anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa found widespread support from community donors and activists.
Today, philanthropy benefits from its long history. Religious, private, and community-led modes of philanthropy are all used today to great effect. One could argue that the innovations made by philanthropists throughout history have all culminated in this modern moment, where philanthropy is thriving more than ever before.