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A Very Brief History of Charitable Giving

Today there are many thousands of registered charities worldwide, and many more private philanthropists such as Vincent Pozzuoli and his wife Shannon who choose to give others the benefit of their good fortune, success, and hard work and give back to their local community. But have you ever wondered how charitable giving began, and how it has evolved to what we are familiar with today?

The modern wealthy philanthropists of today stand alongside past contributors from the ancient Greeks to the clergy of the Middle Ages, donating time and resources to those less fortunate.

Charitable giving has been an aspect of human culture for many thousands of years, and there are historical records of charity dating back at least to the ancient Egyptians of almost five thousand years ago. People have always depended upon the kindness of strangers

Did you know?

  • Ancient Hebrews of 2500 BC installed a mandatory tax that was intended to assist the poor – this was referred to as a “tithe”.
  • The word “philanthropy” comes from the ancient Greek and means “love of mankind”. It first appeared in the classical Greek drama “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus. The ancient Greeks considered philanthropy to be a fundamental aspect of democracy.
  • Chinese ancients exalted benevolence as a virtue.
  • According to Hindu scriptures, giving to the less fortunate is imperative.
  • In 387 BC, Plato’s Academy was established; it was a group of volunteers working for the public good.
  • In 28BC, Augustus, the first Roman emperor, gave charitable aid to 200,000 Roman citizens.
  • For the ancients in Sub-Saharan Africa, kindness to others and reciprocity were of paramount importance.
  • The Torah, Midrash, Talmud, Bible and Koran all call upon believers and followers to help and care for those less fortunate.
  • Native American culture incorporated giving to others as essential to harmony and balance.
  • In 1180 AD, Moses Maimonides, a philosopher and rabbi, established the “Golden Ladder of Charity” in the Mishneh Torah, an innovative Jewish legal text. It was an eight-level hierarchy of giving which placed unwilling giving under duress at the base of the ladder, and anonymous giving to an unidentified or unknown recipient at the top.
  • Monarchs of the Middle Ages in England gave out alms to the poor.
  • In 1601 in England, the English Parliament enacted the Charitable Uses Act (otherwise known as The Statute of Elizabeth I) which stipulated which purposes could be defined as charitable.
  • The first American fundraising drive was held in 1643 at Harvard University.
  • Social assistance was first provided to the needy in Latin America by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity in 1727.
  • In 1835, “Democracy in America” was published by Alexis de Tocqueville. It determined the American philanthropic spirit as a strength.
  • Charitable organizations in the US were exempt from paying taxes from 1913, with the passing by Congress of the Revenue Act of 1913.
  • The Cleveland Foundation was the first community foundation established worldwide, in 1914. This was followed by the first donor-advised fund in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1931.
  • From 1935, corporations could legally deduct charitable contributions.

Today, charitable giving is a core value for many in the West, and in 2014, Americans donated $335 billion to non-profit organisations. Modern philanthropy is defined as systematic and organized giving in order to promote the welfare and social change to improve human quality of life.

Each of us can do our own part; large or small, it all counts and makes a big difference. Explore our website to see how Shannon and Vincent Pozzuoli do their part with the VSP Charitable Fund.

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