American History’s Great Philanthropists

The Roundtable is pleased to present the inaugural class of the new Philanthropy Hall of Fame.

Greatness. It’s a surprisingly elusive concept. At first it seems intuitive, a superlative quality so exceptional that it cannot be missed. But when you try to define greatness, when you try to pin down its essence, what once seemed obvious starts to seem opaque.

If anything, it’s even harder to describe greatness in philanthropy. When it comes to charitable giving, what separates the good from the great? Which is more important, the size of the gift, its percentage of net worth, or the return on charitable dollar? Is great philanthropy necessarily transformative? To what extent is effectiveness a function of the number of individuals served, or the degree of innovation achieved, or the years of lasting influence?

For the past year, the editors have grappled with the question: Who were America’s greatest philanthropists? We studied hundreds of individuals, carefully reviewing their achievements. On the basis of that research, we are pleased to present the following selection from the inaugural class of the Philanthropy Hall of Fame.

Three basic considerations guided our selection. First, we focused on personal giving—philanthropy conducted with one’s own money—rather than institutional giving. Second, we only considered the accomplishments attained within the individual’s own lifetime. (For that reason, we did not consider living donors, whose work is not yet finished.) And third, we took a broad view of effectiveness, acknowledging that excellence can take many forms.

The results of our research are inevitably subjective. There is a discipline, but not a science, to the evaluation of great philanthropists. Nevertheless, we believe that these individuals are worth studying, for their innate human interest as well as for what they can teach the donors of today.

This list isn’t the final word on the greatest philanthropists in American history, nor does it intend to be. Think of it instead as a starting point for discussion—and, we hope, a source of inspiration.

In this special cover story from the Winter 2013 issue of Philanthropy, we reflect on the impact of the great philanthropists in the categories below. Click on each category to learn more about the philanthropists who helped shape our free society.

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