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Giving Tuesday: A Brief History of Philanthropy

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While December inspires many traditions, giving gifts to those less fortunate is one of the more powerful ones. Americans from all walks of life give in this season, through their religious institutions, workplaces, local food and toy drives, and special events in our communities. While our tax code calendar is a practical aspect of our giving, where we choose to give is a personal expression of our life experiences, values, and our social circles and friendships. At the same time, non-profits, with their social impact missions, contribute 5.7 billion dollars to Vermont’s economy. Let’s look a little closer at philanthropy, a bit of its history, and what it means to us as modern-day Vermonters.



The ancient Greek root of the word philanthropy is “to love people.” Today, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines philanthropy as “goodwill to our fellow members of the human race or an especially active effort to promote human welfare.” The spirit of the word is one of caring and concern for your community and its people, but also emphasizes a thoughtful change. A Massachusetts financier, George Peabody, is considered the “Father of Philanthropy” and believed wholeheartedly in this idea. Peabody grew up in poverty, yet achieved significant wealth over his lifetime. Declaring “he didn’t want to die rich,” he became a renowned influencer to his network of wealthy and connected Americans. In fact, Peabody was so renowned for his philanthropy that after his death he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey with the kings and queens of England.



Later in the century, Andrew Carnegie, the railroad tycoon of the early 20th century, continued in the grand tradition of Peabody. Carnegie fervently believed in the power of public libraries and their ability to “lift people up by education.” Over his lifetime, he funded 2,500 libraries across the United States, including four right here in Vermont. He leveraged his giving as a way to shape the world he envisioned. Over and over, throughout our country’s history, we are reminded that our leading institutions were made possible by philanthropy. Think of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Spelman College named for its founders and funders who fought to abolish slavery. Our country would look very different today without these legacies.


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Fast forward to the present day and philanthropy remains a powerful force contributing to public welfare. Think of Bill and Melinda Gates in the arena of international health and their resolve to help all people live healthy and productive lives. Just recently, singer and songwriter Dolly Parton donated one million dollars to support research for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, now in use across the country. MacKenzie Scott made headlines in Vermont with her million-dollar gifts, arriving unexpectedly in mailboxes at non-profits in all sectors in every state. Peabody’s original value of giving away wealth is thriving. The Giving Pledge, a commitment to give away at least half of your assets, has 62 living signers today.



At the same time, these wealthiest donors don’t corner the market on philanthropy. In fact, the middle-class donor’s time and small donations add up in a mighty way to sustain our local social impact networks. In tiny Vermont, modest checks are the backbone for one of the most robust non-profit networks in the country. Joined together, the impact of the small givers adds up to mighty clout for our safety net services, colleges, museums, religious institutions, and the arts.


This year, as you consider your our personal path to philanthropy, consider the words of Farida Kathawalla, Cofounder Circle of Hope: “I had the notion that one had to be rich to be a philanthropist, which I soon realized is not true. Effective philanthropy is not what you give but the way in which you give. What you do with the resources is what truly matters.”

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Alison Calderara

About Alison Calderara

Alison Calderara, ME.d is the chief of program and advancement for Capstone Community Action. Through the Capstone mission, her work centers on fuel crisis assistance, food insecurity, housing and homelessness, and working with community stakeholders to create new programming aimed at lifting Vermonters out of poverty. Her non-profit career began in health care equity and growing with the Federally Qualified Health Center system in Vermont. As a non-profit leader, she has been inspired by the generosity and vision of Vermont donors, large and small over her career.
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