Introduction: Prosperity

Fighting poverty is one of the oldest charitable imperatives. This in turn often requires battling syndromes that lead to poverty—like family breakdown, alcohol and drug abuse, or unfair bias. Philanthropists often act to make their fellow citizens more prosperous, and to spread economic flourishing broadly among all Americans. Private donors were helping Indians, African-Americans, ethnic minorities, refugees, and women become educated and economically productive many decades before government agencies were committed to fair and equal opportunity. 

Donors have often been motivated by religious impulses in areas like aid to the poor, help for orphans and families, measures for racial fairness, prison reform, anti-addiction efforts, and the like. Many entries on the list below could just as easily have been filed on our forthcoming roster of Major Achievements in Religious Philanthropy. Likewise, many charities that might have been included here because of their success in spreading prosperity among Americans—like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, etc.—will instead be found on our Religious Philanthropy list. 

As common as efforts to extend economic success to widening circles of citizens have been, interventions that encourage economic flourishing more generally have been almost as popular among philanthropists. Many donors believe that expanding our economic pie over the long run is the very best way to ensure that everyone eventually earns a generous slice. Gifts to economic research and the hard sciences, for example, are usually made in the hope of increasing general prosperity. Nearly a third of the funds available for science research at America’s top 50 universities currently come from private donations. Top lab directors like Eric Lander and Leroy Hood have energetically explained how important philanthropy is as a form of risk capital that lets scientists explore unconventional, unusually hard, or very-early-stage problems. Many technical breakthroughs that later bear economic fruit in abundance are powered by donations. Even defense-related innovations like artificial intelligence, rocketry, code-breaking, radar, and sonar that we think of as classic government responsibilities have been initiated by philanthropy. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister, Scott Walter, Jo Kwong, Thomas Meyer