There are Iliads and Odysseys of human interest in American philanthropy. Some tremendously intriguing Americans of all stripes have poured time and treasure into helping their fellow man. Absent their passion and resources, our nation would be less thriving, and our individual days would be flatter, darker, more dangerous, and less happy. Let’s meet some of these philanthropists.
Ned McIlhenny, born and raised on a Louisiana bayou, was an expert on camellias, on alligators, on the hundreds of varieties of bamboo that grow around the world, and on wild turkeys. He was an Arctic explorer. His skills as a hunter once helped save the lives of 200 ice-bound sailors. He was an ornithologist who personally banded more than a quarter of a million birds. And he also had a day job selling the hot-pepper condiment invented by his family: McIlhenny Tabasco sauce.
It turns out there is real money in burning mouths, and McIlhenny used his for an amazing array of good works. For one thing, he got very attached to a fellow native of Louisiana’s bayous: the snowy egret. When McIlhenny was young, hats bearing egret plumes were for ladies what Coach handbags are today. This fashion mania had the effect of nearly driving the snowy egret to extinction, and no one was doing anything about it. So the philanthropist swung into action.
McIlhenny beat the bushes in wild parts of the island his family owned and managed to find eight baby egrets in two nests. He raised these hatchlings in a protected area, paid for their care over a period of years, and by 1911 had built up a population of 100,000 egrets on his private refuge. He simultaneously recruited John Rockefeller, Olivia Sage, and other philanthropists to buy up and preserve swampy land in Louisiana that is important as winter habitat of migratory waterfowl, including egrets. In this way he rescued a magnificent creature that was on the verge of disappearing from the Earth.
Later in his life, McIlhenny took action to stave off a very different kind of extinction. He had been raised with Negro spirituals in his ears, and loved them dearly. Around his 60th birthday, McIlhenny realized that these songs —which then existed only in an oral tradition—were dying out and at risk of being forgotten forever. So he again sprang into action with both his checkbook and his personal involvement.
He used his contacts to find two elderly singers who still remembered many of the songs. He hired a musicologist to sit with him, and as these ladies sang their hearts out, the two men wrote down the lyrics and melodies and harmonies as fast as they could scribble. In this way they preserved the music in scrupulous detail, exactly as it had been handed down among generations of slaves.
McIlhenny then published these songs as a book, which became a classic of the genre. All but a handful of the 125 spirituals he captured were unrecorded in any other place, so he single-handedly saved these soulful artifacts of American history for future generations.
McIlhenny’s songs included one that provided Martin Luther King Jr. with his most famous line:
When we allow freedom to ring…from every village and hamlet…we will…speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Another red-blooded American philanthropist who helped freedom last was Alfred Loomis. His philanthropic field was national defense. Many of us think of defense as the ultimate government responsibility, and a place without room or need for philanthropy. So it may come as a surprise to learn that private donors have played important roles in securing our nation throughout its history. They financed our Revolution. They created the modern field of code-making and -breaking. Donors single-handedly developed the field of rocketry, and fanned private space launch into fiery success. (For details on how philanthropy has repeatedly bolstered our national defense, see “Donors Who Come to the Aid of their Country.”)
No donor was more crucial in building America’s military strength than Alfred Loomis. After financing much of the electrification of rural America as a Wall Street dealmaker, he became convinced that the stock market was overvalued and converted everything he owned to cash and T-bills in 1929. When the October 1929 Crash came, he was not only protected but in a perfect position to go shopping at bargain prices. By the early 1930s Loomis was one of the richest men in America, and at age 45 he retired from finance to put all of his time and energy, and much of his money, into his true love: science. He set up one of the world’s great science labs in a mansion near his home, invited top researchers from around the world to experiment there, and conducted his own state-of-the-art investigations.
While visiting Berlin in 1938, Loomis was disturbed to find how popular Hitler was, and how good German scientists were. He returned home convinced that war was brewing, and that science would have a lot to do with who won. So he poured himself and his money into one new field where he thought science might be able to contribute to the war effort: using radio waves to detect moving objects. His lab quickly became the national leader in what we now call radar. Thanks to Loomis’s funding and leadership, practical radar sets were created under his supervision and delivered to the Army and Navy by the thousands, turning the tide of World War II.
If radar won the war, the atomic bomb ended it. And as it happens Alfred Loomis had a lot to do with that as well. The method he used for his radar triumphs was to relentlessly gather the best scientific minds, without regard to their prior specialties, give them rich resources, and protect them from bureaucratic interference. When it became apparent how powerful Loomis’s modus operandi was, it was directly copied for the Manhattan Project; indeed, most of his scientists were transferred over to work on the atomic bomb. Franklin Roosevelt later said that aside from Winston Churchill, no civilian did more to win World War II than Alfred Loomis.
By the way, it isn’t only Alfred Loomis’s brilliant model for conducting crash research that lives on today. He also left behind a flesh-and-blood embodiment of his whirlwind entrepreneurial philanthropy. His great-grandson is Reed Hastings—who, as CEO of Netflix and one of the nation’s most influential progenitors of charter schools as a donor, has been a huge game-changer in both business and philanthropy.
Another entrepreneurial philanthropist who put deep imprints on America was George Eastman. As founder of Kodak in upstate New York, he popularized photography in the early 1900s. When he began, the photographic process was all art and guesswork, and no science. During the frantic start-up phase of his company, for example, a calamitous failure of the gelatins used in his photo-developing process threatened to kill his firm. It eventually turned out that the cows whose carcasses were being boiled down to create the industrial gelatin had been shifted to new pastures where their forage lacked sulfur, and that tiny missing ingredient was enough to wreck the delicate chemical process.
Determined to figure out the basic chemistry of photography so he wouldn’t be prisoner to these inconsistencies, Eastman started hiring chemists from an obscure little school in New England known as Boston Tech. Grateful for the well-trained minds he came to rely on, Eastman later funded much of the transformation of Boston Tech into today’s MIT, including building the entirely new campus where that university now resides. At the moment Eastman presented his offer, the college was on the verge of failing and shutting down. Eastman likewise nurtured the University of Rochester into a great research and educational facility, including creating its medical school from scratch.
Eastman adored music, and had a huge pipe organ installed in his home and played every morning to wake him as his alarm clock. One friend who accompanied him on a New York City trip where they took in 12 operas in six days described Eastman as “absolutely alcoholic about music.” This passion led to one of the great cultural gifts in American history, as Eastman methodically created and built to world prominence the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, which currently enrolls 500 undergraduates, 400 graduate students, and 1,000 local child and adult students. The Eastman School was important in Americanizing and popularizing classical music, and remains one of our country’s top cultural institutions.
Another great American donor was Milton Hershey. Many readers will insist that his crowning gifts to humanity came in brown bars and silver kisses. By transforming chocolate from expensive rarity to treat affordable by all, he did create an explosion in new ways of making Americans feel happy.
Hershey’s deepest passion, though, was his remarkable school for orphans, which he and his wife created and ultimately gave their entire company to. Hershey’s father was a neglectful drinker, and the separation of his parents turned his boyhood into a shoeless and hungry ordeal. To relieve other children of similar trials he built up his orphanage in a gradually surging ring of family-like houses encircling his own home, where each small group of youngsters was overseen by a married couple who lived with them. In addition to loving oversight, the school provided a thorough basic education and excellent training in industrial crafts.
Hershey was a constant physical presence among his youngsters until his death in 1945. At one point he announced, “I have decided to make the orphan boys of the United States my heirs.” And he did—endowing the Milton Hershey School with a nest egg currently worth $11 billion. That allows the school to serve 2,000 endangered children from around the U.S. every year, putting many of them on a dramatically elevated life path.
Philanthropists come in all stripes. That’s one of the field’s strengths: Different givers pursue different visions, so you get many solutions to problems rather than just one. If Milton Hershey’s cure for child neglect was large-scale fostering, Katharine McCormick’s attempt was to make orphans rarer by manipulating biology. It’s pretty widely known that medical breakthroughs like the polio vaccine and hookworm eradication were products of philanthropy. But how many people know that the birth-control pill was the creation of a sole private funder?
A reaper of the International Harvester fortune, McCormick was an early women’s-rights activist. She initiated a connection with Gregory Pincus, a brilliant biologist who had been fired by Harvard for ethical lapses, to discuss whether it might be possible to prevent pregnancy by means as easy as taking an aspirin. Before leaving the room after their first meeting, McCormick wrote Pincus a check for $40,000.
She funded his private laboratory steadily thereafter, eventually investing the current equivalent of about $20 million in their quest to develop a daily birth-control pill. McCormick was the sole and entire funder of this work, and hovered constantly over the lab, influencing many of its research choices. By 1957 this duo had an FDA-approved pill, and the Earth wobbled a little on its axis. McCormick reveled in her accomplishment, even taking her own prescription to be filled at a local pharmacy—despite being a matron in her 80s at that point—just for the sheer frisson.
Lots of little guys
Dwight Macdonald once described the Ford Foundation as “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.” It’s easy to look at a big pile of silver like Ford and think that’s what American philanthropy is all about. But philanthropy in the U.S. is not just a story of moguls. In fact, it is not even primarily about wealthy people or (even less) big foundations.
Do you realize that only 14 percent of charitable giving in the U.S. comes from foundations? And only 5 percent from corporations? (See pie chart on next page.)
The rest comes from individuals—and the bulk of that from everyday givers, at an annual rate of about $2,500 per household. Even among foundations, there is a strong tilt toward the small. Less than 2,000 foundations (2 percent of all) have assets of $50 million or more today. Most foundations are modest in size. And most giving is even smaller—but it is practiced very widely.
It is inexorable giving by humble Americans that constitutes the main branch of U.S. philanthropy. Take Gus and Marie Salenske, a plumber and nurse who lived quietly into the first decade of this millennium in a small house in Syracuse, New York. Their one indulgence was weekly square dancing; other than that they were savers. After they died, this simple couple left more than $3 million to good causes, mostly their beloved Catholic church.
Anne Scheiber was a shy auditor who retired in 1944 with just $5,000 in the bank. Through frugal living and inspired stock-picking she turned this into $22 million by the time she passed away in 1995 at the age of 101. She left it all to Yeshiva University so that bright but needy girls could attend college and medical school.
Elinor Sauerwein painted her own home, kept a vegetable garden, and mowed the lawn herself until she was in her 90s. She eschewed restaurants, cable TV, and other expenses as unnecessary luxuries. But when she died in 2010, she left $1.7 million to the local Modesto, California, branch of the Salvation Army. “Her goal for years and years was to amass as much as she could so it would go to the Salvation Army,” reported her financial adviser.
Albert Lexie shined shoes in Pittsburgh for more than 50 years, and made a decision decades ago to donate every penny of his tips to the Free Care Fund of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, which benefits families who can’t afford treatment. From 1981 to 2013, Lexie handed over more than $200,000 to Children’s Hospital—a third of his total earnings.
Oseola McCarty’s life could not have started much harder—she was conceived when her mother was raped on a wooded path in rural Mississippi. And it didn’t get easier with age. She started to work in elementary school, ironing clothes, and dropped out of sixth grade to support her ailing aunt by taking in washing.
Hers wasn’t a standard-issue home laundry. McCarty scrubbed her clients’ clothes by hand on a rub board. She did try an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but concluded that “the washing machine didn’t rinse enough, and the dryer turned the whites yellow.” After years of boiling shirts and linens and then doing four fresh-water rinses, the machine wasn’t good enough to meet her high standards. So she went back to her bubbling pots, Maid Rite scrub board, and 100 feet of open-air clothesline.
Early in her life, McCarty reported, “I commenced to save money. I never would take any of it out. I just put it in…. It’s not the ones that make the big money, but the ones who know how to save who get ahead. You got to leave it alone long enough for it to increase.” This was a life secret she mastered, and when she retired in 1995, her hands painfully swollen with arthritis, this washerwoman who had been paid in little piles of coins and dollar bills her entire life revealed another secret: She had $280,000 in the bank. Even more startling: She decided to give most of it away—not as a bequest, but immediately.
Setting aside just enough to live on, McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for worthy but needy students seeking the education she never had. When the community found out what she had done, more than 600 men and women in Hattiesburg and beyond made donations that more than tripled her original endowment. Today, the university presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships every year.
The power of little guys and big guys together
Can anything large and consequential really be accomplished by these little and middling givers, or by the very limited population of big givers? The clear answer from American history is yes. Many remarkable things have been achieved by dispersed giving, which often aggregates in formidable ways.
Once upon a time, our country even built its naval ships via dispersed giving. When newborn America was having terrible troubles with pirates in the Mediterranean and revolutionary French raiders off our coasts, many communities took up subscriptions and gathered voluntary funds to build warships and hire captains. The good people of Salem, Massachusetts, for instance, contributed $74,700—in amounts ranging from $10 given by Edmund Gale to a pair of $10,000 donations from Elias Derby and William Gray—and built the frigate USS Essex, which became one of the most storied vessels in our new Navy.
When the War of 1812 arrived, it was dispersed giving that saved us from calamity. As the conflict broke out, the U.S. Navy possessed a total of seven frigates and less than a dozen other seagoing ships. The British Navy numbered a thousand warships, including 175 double-gundeck “ships of the line,” of which the United States had none. The comparison by firepower was even starker: a total of 450 cannons carried by the U.S. Navy, versus 27,800 afloat in the Royal Navy.
So how did America fight this naval contest to a draw? Individually funded, decentralized warfighting—in the form of privateers. Not long after hostilities were declared, there were 517 privately equipped and manned corsairs defending the U.S. During the course of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy captured or sunk about 300 enemy ships, while U.S. privateers captured or sunk around 2,000, blasting British trade.
The American merchants and ordinary sailors who voluntarily organized themselves into fighting units got everything they hoped for. No more impressment of U.S. seamen. A restoration of free trading. And deep respect for the ability of America’s small colonies—weak of government but strong of civil society—to defend their interests.
That same pattern has been followed in many other sectors of American society. In chronicling the astonishing bloom of colleges in the U.S., author Daniel Boorstin noted that the state of Ohio, with just 3 million inhabitants, had 37 colleges in 1880. At that same time, England, a nation of 23 million people, had four. Why the difference? Education philanthropy.
Education philanthropy in the U.S. stretches back to our earliest days, a century and a half before we even had a country. The New College was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. Three years later it was renamed, after young minister
John Harvard donated his library and half of his estate to the institution.
America’s first recorded fund drive was launched in 1643 to raise money for the college; when 500 British pounds were collected it was deemed a “great success.” The next year, colonial families were asked to donate a shilling in cash or a peck of wheat to support the citadel of higher learning in their midst. These voluntary donations, known as the “college corne,” sustained Harvard for more than a decade.
Can anything large and consequential really be accomplished by little and middling givers, or by the very limited population of big givers? The clear answer from American history is yes.
Fast forward to 2015. Nearly 50 American colleges were in the midst of fundraising campaigns aimed at raising at least a billion dollars in donations. Private gifts power even our public universities—institutions like the University of Virginia and the University of California, Berkeley now receive more revenue from voluntary giving (gifts and interest off previous gifts) than they do from state appropriations.
Relying on private individuals to train up the next generation of leaders, rather than leaving that responsibility to the crown or church, was an entirely new development in higher education. It burst forth across our new land, producing the College of William & Mary in 1693, the precursor to St. John’s College in 1696, Yale in 1701, and many others. Sub-innovations followed, like the spread of the endowed professorship from a first example in 1721. The pervasiveness of the endowed chair in the U.S. today tempts one to assume that this practice must be common everywhere, but actually it remains rare outside America, where it has helped drive our universities to international pre-eminence.
Our nation’s great bloom of universities illustrates perfectly the fruitful mixing of little and big givers. Institutions like the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York—a pioneer of science-based education that granted the first civil-engineering and advanced agriculture degrees in the English-speaking world—relied on big gifts from major patrons like Stephen Rensselaer. Other places such as Western Reserve University in Ohio, founded just two years after Rensselaer and likewise destined to become a science powerhouse, relied on an entirely different philanthropic model—the sacrificial giving of thousands of local neighbors on the frontier. One supporter spent a whole winter hauling building supplies to the school from a quarry ten miles away. Another typical family pledged a portion of their annual milk and egg sales.
Starting in the 1840s, hundreds of Eastern churches began to pool small donations to support collegiate education across the Western frontier. Within 30 years they had raised more than a million dollars to sustain 18 colleges. Hillsdale College was built up at this same time after professor and preacher Ransom Dunn circled through more than 6,000 miles of wild lands collecting nickels and dimes and dollars from settlers.
The power of personalism
Pledging your family egg sales to a local institution. Hauling stone all winter for a good cause. Donating your shoeshine tips. In our country, giving is often very personal.
Michael Brown was a Broadway lyricist with a new hit musical under his belt, so his family was enjoying a burst of unanticipated prosperity. For their 1956 Christmas celebration, he and his wife and two sons hosted a close friend, a young writer who was far from her home in the South. Toward the end of their gift exchange, the Browns handed their guest an envelope. Inside was a note that read: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
The writer’s name was Harper Lee. When she had decided to try to make it as a novelist, she relocated (like many before her and since) to New York City. After getting there she found (like many before her and since) that she was so preoccupied with paying her rent—by working at an airline office and bookstore—that she had little time to focus on her literary craft. The Browns noticed she was struggling, and through some very personal philanthropy changed the course of U.S. literature.
With their donation in hand, Harper Lee quit her retail jobs. And during that gift year she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and became one of the most influential American books of all time.
While this was an especially intimate contribution, this kind of personalism is not at all unusual in American philanthropy. In fact, gifts where the givers and recipients are involved with each other, familiar with one another’s characters, and committed to each others’ flourishing, are some of the most successful forms of philanthropy. You can see this yourself any day. Volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity building project and you will often work next to the person who is going to occupy the house. Sponsor a child in an inner-city Catholic school (or an overseas village) and you will have opportunities to follow the life progress of the beneficiary, share in his or her dreams, and perhaps attend a graduation.
Knowing the character of the person you are trying to help—strengths and weaknesses, needs and temptations—allows the giver to focus his help much more effectively, and to avoid wasteful or mistaken or perverse forms of “help.” As William Blake put it, “If you would help another man, you must do so in minute particulars.” One man’s medicine can be another man’s poison; donors must prescribe for particular people, not treat “mankind” as some cold, interchangeable abstraction. Much of the best anti-poverty work carried out during America’s immigrant waves and transitions to industrialism during the 1800s and early 1900s took highly personal forms, where givers rolled up their sleeves and offered not only money but mentoring and guidance and support to specific men and women in need.
Stephen Girard was one of the five richest men in American history, when his wealth is measured as a percentage of GDP. But when the yellow-fever epidemics swept his hometown of Philadelphia—as they did many summers in the years before anyone realized that the deadly malady was carried up from the tropics on sailing ships, and spread by mosquitoes—Girard was a tireless personal leader in the efforts to tamp down the disease. This required courage, as the terrifying affliction would kill hundreds of people per day in a horror of delirium and bloody vomiting.
Residents who could afford it generally fled the city when epidemics roared through. Not Girard. He stayed in Philadelphia in 1793, 1797-98, 1802, and 1820 to guide relief efforts, fund hospital operations, and provide direct care for individuals—often bathing and feeding the dying himself. He routinely put his personal and business affairs on hold during outbreaks. “As soon as things have quieted down a little you may be sure I shall take up my work with all the activity in my power,” he wrote to a friend in 1793. “But, for the moment, I have devoted all my time and my person, as well as my little fortune, to the relief of my fellow citizens.”
Nicholas Longworth grew up poor, and apprenticed to a shoemaker for a period, before eventually earning great wealth. He gave much of it away to what he called “the devil’s poor,” whom he identified and helped in extremely personal ways. “Decent paupers will always find a plenty to help them, but no one cares for these poor wretches. Everybody damns them, and as no one else will help them, I must,” he concluded.
Longworth distributed food directly to these most abject cases, built apartments to salve their homelessness, and held personal sessions where he would listen patiently to sad stories and offer solace and assistance. When he died in Cincinnati in 1863, Longworth’s funeral procession numbered in the thousands, a great many of them outcasts. Drunkards, prostitutes, beggars, and criminals sobbed at the loss of their one true friend.
The Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, were successful New York merchants and among this country’s most accomplished philanthropists at changing society and politics. They worked on a much more national scale than Longworth or Girard. Yet their machinations were often just as personal.
Fired by their evangelical Christian convictions, the Tappans were leading donors to the cause of abolishing slavery. After their funding turned the American Anti-Slavery Society into a mass movement with 250,000 members, mobs attacked their homes and businesses. Arthur escaped with his life only by barricading himself in one of the family stores well supplied with guns. Lewis’s home was sacked that same evening, with all of his family possessions pulled into the street and burned by slavery apologists.
The brothers did not buckle. Lewis left his house unrepaired—to serve, he said, as a “silent anti-slavery preacher to the crowds who will flock to see it.” In addition, the two men decided to flood the U.S. with anti-slavery mailings over the following year. This brought them additional death threats and harassment, none of which slowed them down.
When a group of Africans who had been captured by Spanish slavers rose against the crew of the ship transporting them and eventually came ashore on Long Island, Lewis immediately organized their defense against murder charges for having killed a crewmember. He decamped to Connecticut, where he clothed and fed the defendants, located and hired an interpreter of their African dialect, and brought in Yale students to tutor them in English, American manners, and Christianity. Then he retained top lawyers to represent their interests. He attended the court proceedings himself every day, organized a public-relations campaign, and eventually got the Africans freed after pushing their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His personal devotion and single-handed financing turned abolitionism into a cause célèbre.
If the campaigning of the Tappans on behalf of slaves was impressively personal, the devotion of Joseph de Veuster to miserable lepers was out-and-out heroic. Better known as Father Damien after he became a Catholic priest, de Veuster thought it inhumane that when leprosy reached the Hawaiian Islands, victims were forced to live in isolation on a wild peninsula without any buildings or goods or services. The newly diagnosed would be dropped off with nothing but a few tools and some seeds, and proceed to live miserably in shelters made of sticks.
Father Damien moved into the leper colony himself in 1873, brought anti-social residents into line, rescued orphans, provided medical care, and organized building and gardening efforts. He marshaled fundraising letters that brought in donations sufficient to pay for his improvements, and to bury the 1,600 people whose funerals he presided over in a period of six years. He died himself at age 49 from complications of leprosy. The sacrifices made by Father Damien are especially piercing, but there are many examples of philanthropists who risked happiness, health, and even life itself to carry out their good works.
Philanthropy regularly grows out of pain. The death of John Rockefeller’s grandson from scarlet fever in 1901 cemented his desire to build a medical-research facility that could banish such afflictions. The result was Rockefeller University, whose researchers over the years have been awarded dozens of Nobel prizes. The organizer and funder of today’s wildly successful National Kidney Registry, which matches donors to patients with organ failure, acted after his ten-year-old daughter was nearly lost to kidney disease.
America’s most fecund artist colony, known as Yaddo, was created by Thomas Edison’s financial partner Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, as a cathartic effort after the couple endured the profound pain of losing all four of their young children, in separate incidents, to disease and early death. The Trasks envisioned a place where “generations of talented men and women yet unborn” would be “creating, creating, creating.” Since its opening in 1926, Yaddo has nurtured 71 Pulitzer Prize winners, 68 National Book Award winners, a Nobel literature laureate, and countless other productive musicians, playwrights, and novelists. The Trasks sweetened and softened a world that may have felt hard and bitter when they started giving.
Though it sometimes grows out of pain, philanthropy is more frequently sparked by emotions like gratitude and joy. The first charity hospital in America was created in, of all places, 1735 New Orleans—at that point a ragingly ragged and largely ungoverned city first populated just 18 years earlier by people drawn from jails, poorhouses, and urban gutters. The hospital benefactor was a dying sailor named Jean Louis, who had made some money for the first time in his life by going into the boatbuilding business in the brand-new French colony. He wanted to pass on his good fortune. And his Charity Hospital offering free care to the indigent became one of the most useful of its type, finding a vast market in a town known even then for creativity in vice.