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The Powerful History of Philanthropy

Updated: Sep 14


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On September 5, we celebrated International Day of Charity. Declared an international holiday by the United Nations in 2012, the date was chosen to honor the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death. Now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, she dedicated her life to helping impoverished people and, for her work, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.


During her service, she founded the order “The Missionaries of Charity” to love and provide for those no one else looked after. The order is now an international congregation with over 5,000 members caring for orphans, those suffering from AIDs, refugees, and many more across the globe. Though much of Mother Teresa’s time was spent in service to those in the slums of Calcutta, India, her reputation of selflessness surpassed geographical borders and has become a lasting example of altruism.


The holiday is called the “Day of Charity,” but its goal is to promote giving in all forms—charity, philanthropy, and volunteerism. Charity is often a single donation in response to a natural disaster, displacement, or crime. Victims of the August floods in Central Appalachia are benefiting from examples of charity. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a more long-term effort to make societal change. Today, the word philanthropy carries a connotation of galas, millionaires, and exuberant donations, but it has a rich history of halting inequality, bringing communities together, and providing for those in need.


Philanthropy literally means “love of mankind,” a definition that particularly resonated with Americans during the Progressive Era. In 1849, a gang of white men in Philadelphia sieged an African American neighborhood. The attackers were armed and set out to cause destruction and distress to the black residents. They set fires and assaulted anyone in their way. The riots lasted through the night and into the morning, causing significant damage. First responders from white neighborhoods had no obligation to cross racial lines, but a group of firefighters from the Good Will Engine Company came to aid nonetheless.


To honor the company for their service, a group of African American women presented the firefighters with a silver trumpet engraved with this inscription:

Presented to the Good Will Engine Co.

By the Colored women of Philad.a

as a token of their appreciation of their manly

heroic, and philanthropic efforts displayed

upon various trying occasions in defence

of the persons’ rights and property of

their oppressed fellow citizens.


Smithsonian Magazine notes that “by calling the men ‘philanthropic'”—which, at the time, truly meant love of mankind—“the women were underscoring the inclusion of African Americans in the circle of humanity.”


Throughout history, philanthropy and charity have served to bridge the inequality gap. In the 1790s, women were ostracized from organized service. Men considered philanthropy outside the female station and ability, but women like Emily Bissel, best known for developing Christmas Seals to help end tuberculosis, ignored social norms to positively influence public life. By the end of the 1800s, philanthropy was well-accepted as a feminine activity, and women’s new role in this sector gave them hope that they may one day obtain the right to vote.


Women’s rights activists weren’t the only ones supporting the suffrage movement. Organizations aimed to open young men’s clubs, fight for child labor laws, or provide for the hungry brought women together. Every female-run nonprofit proved women’s ability and showed society how much they could accomplish. Modern charity and philanthropy are no different. These causes close racial borders, gender gaps, and other societal inequalities by joining us all with a common goal: to show our love for humanity.


This month, we are celebrating the power of charities to bring people together and drive change. Join us, and find a cause you’re passionate about! You don’t have to be a millionaire to give generously. If you can’t give money, give your time or labor. Show your love of humanity!

Share with us your favorite charity in the comments below.


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