In celebration of the upcoming Presidents Day holiday, Philanthropy Roundtable examines a critical component of any president’s legacy, philanthropic giving, by profiling the charitable contributions of four modern-day presidents: George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan.
With his charitable giving, the nation’s first president, George Washington, set the bar high for all presidents who would follow. Washington had a particular affinity for helping the poor. When he left his farm to command the Continental Army, he instructed his staff, “Let no one go hungry away. If any of these kind of people should be in want of corn, supply their necessities, provided it does not encourage them in idleness.”
After the war, Washington financially supported orphanages in several states. He also prioritized higher education in his later years, donating $20,000 in property, the equivalent of $20 million today, to the Alexandria Academy to underwrite tuition for students. Today, that academy is known as Washington and Lee University.
The tradition of presidential giving, during a president’s term in office and beyond, continues in the modern era.
George H.W. Bush’s 1,000 Points of Light
George H.W. Bush once described America’s web of community and civic organizations as “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”
Bush would return to that theme during his inaugural address and many times throughout his presidency. He established the Points of Light Award and presented it to more than 1,000 volunteers during his time in office. He also founded the Points of Light Institute to empower individuals to stand up and solve social problems.
Today, Points of Light has become “the world’s largest volunteer organization.” The Institute provides products and services to nonprofits to help make volunteerism more “accessible, inclusive and effective,” conducts research “to encourage evidence-based actions” and hosts gatherings.
In addition to launching Points of Light to strengthen civil society, the former president and first lady, Barbara Bush, were very generous in their other charitable endeavors, even after leaving the White House. They helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for charity, with a specific focus on health. President and Mrs. Bush, who lost their daughter to leukemia, supported cancer treatment programs at the Texas Medical Center and the MD Andersen Cancer Center. In addition to this, they rang bells and raised money for the Salvation Army, and also supported literacy programs.
Jimmy Carter: Building Walls and Breaking Down Barriers
By now, you’ve probably seen photos of Jimmy Carter, well into his 90s, wearing overalls, a tool belt and a wide smile, building homes for the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity.
The former president and his wife, Rosalynn, have been the organization’s most high-profile supporters for almost 30 years. During that time, the Carters have worked alongside “103,000 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair 4,331 homes,” according to Habitat.
Carter has said his family’s work for the organization serves two purposes.
“Habitat provides a simple but powerful avenue for people of different backgrounds to come together to achieve those most meaningful things in life,” he once said. “A decent home, yes, but also a genuine bond with our fellow human beings. A bond that comes with the building up of walls and the breaking down of barriers.”
In addition to building homes, Carter remains busy building strong communities around the world through his Carter Center, an organization he founded with Mrs. Carter in 1982. The Carter Center monitors elections, brokers peace and eases suffering in some of the poorest countries in the world, with a primary focus of eradicating tropical diseases.
On Oct. 11, 2002, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights and to promote economic and social development.”
Barack Obama: Serving Those Who Serve
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, donated over $1 million to charity during their time in the White House. Much of this giving was focused on helping children, and included donations to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Midtown Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that provides pathways to opportunity for low-income urban youth in the Obamas’ hometown, Chicago.
Their largest donation, almost $392,000, went to the Fisher House Foundation, an organization that provides free housing to military and veteran families visiting loved ones recovering at military and VA medical facilities. This gift, which mainly consisted of proceeds from the president’s children’s book “Of Thee I Sing,” was used to support a scholarship program for children of wounded veterans.
In addition to supporting the Fisher House, Mrs. Obama launched Joining Forces during her time as first lady with then second lady Jill Biden to provide military families “the tools they need to succeed throughout their lives.”
Today, the Obamas continue their legacy of giving through the Obama Foundation, which focuses on education, civics and leadership. Their support of Fisher House continues post-presidency as well. In 2019, Obama tweeted a photo of himself bringing cookies to the children of recovering veterans, along with this message: “Fisher House is always making sure we are serving those who serve us.”
Ronald Reagan’s Philanthropic Proclamation
On Nov. 14, 1986, President Reagan issued a declaration naming Nov. 15 National Philanthropy Day:
“Throughout our history, we Americans have displayed this trait through our generous charitable giving and our spirit of neighbor helping neighbor. We help each other, and we reach out to help people all over the world. Our tradition of voluntarism embodies a great deal of caring, initiative, and ingenuity in solving problems and improving our communities. It is one of our greatest strengths as a people.”
Despite this public proclamation, Reagan kept much of his personal philanthropy private, preferring “to help people not organizations.” Aides recall the president would send monetary contributions in response to letters from people who were suffering. For example, Reagan once wrote a personal check to a young boy awaiting a liver transplant, a donation that eventually made the newspaper.
Today, the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Library, “a nonprofit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the legacy of Ronald Reagan and his timeless principles,” has provided more than $8.5 million in scholarships to student leaders seeking a higher education, along with a number of other educational programs that teach the values of liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility.
It’s also worth noting that, during Reagan’s years in office, charitable giving grew at twice the rate of the previous decade, thanks to a thriving economy. That is another valuable contribution that Reagan made to philanthropy, proving that robust free markets create the wealth that makes giving possible.
On the third Monday in February each year, America honors and celebrates all people who have held the title president of the United States. This holiday began in 1879 as an effort to honor America’s first president, George Washington, on his birthday. However, in 1971, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation officially naming the holiday Presidents Day, calling it “the first such three-day holiday set aside to honor all presidents, even myself.”