Founding Fathers’ philanthropy: America’s strong giving tradition


Alexandria in ACTion with John Porter
(File Photo)

This month Alexandrians celebrate two important historical events — the founding of our country 238 years ago and that of our city 27 years earlier in 1749.

I think back to our ancestors, local and national, wondering what philanthropy was like in our nation’s early years when the fervor of the day focused more on freedom, independence and what laid ahead. There likely were individuals who helped others in need but not necessarily in the more organized fashion we’ve come to expect today.

Living in this area, you can’t help but focus on George Washington as he was instrumental in all that was going on during his time. While he played a major role on the national stage and considered Alexandria his home, he also is remembered for his philanthropy.

While better known for leading the Continental Army, helping shape our fledgling government and serving as our first president, Washington should be remembered for his philanthropy particularly in relation to the poor, orphans and higher education. A piece by the Philanthropic Roundtable notes how he regularly provided food to those imprisoned for debt and how he made “hundreds of donations to churches and charities, many of which were given under the condition of anonymity.”

He truly lived by the credo of “never let an indigent person ask without receiving something if you have the means.”

He’s also remembered locally for founding and supporting the Alexandria Academy and backing Christ Church. He strongly believed in the value of education. This support extended to higher education and is most noteworthy in a major gift to what is now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., three years before his death — a gift that lives on as the university estimates that $11 of each student’s tuition is underwritten by this original grant from the Father of Our Country.

At Christ Church, in addition to supporting the work of the congregation, Washington made donations of tobacco, food and drink to the clergy, according to Rector Pierce Klemmt who is also an ACT for Alexandria board member. Klemmt notes that the steeped tradition of giving to the church that began over 200 years ago continues to this day, although not in the same form of staples for the clergy.

Another prominent philanthropist was Benjamin Franklin, who became known as the Father of Civil Society. While his giving supported many individuals and public entities, he’s best remembered in this arena for being the first known individual to offer a matching grant when he challenged legislators to match money raised from private contributors for the Pennsylvania Hospital and for being a trailblazer in legacy giving with bequests to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia on his death. The legacy gift to The Philadelphia Foundation is a precursor to similar gifts to present day foundations including community organizations like ACT for Alexandria.

Perhaps the most crucial thing these early philanthropists provided was not just the pioneering of charitable giving in our country, but the establishment of the foundation for our independence, our present form of government, our way of life and thereby the opportunity to help others in need. This legacy will continue to live on despite the many challenges and obstacles we face. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got much more that needs to be done. Community foundations like ACT play a key role across our country in carrying on this tradition of giving and improving our communities.

Happy birthday to the USA and to Alexandria. May the next 238 and 265 years, respectively, prove as remarkable as the past have.May we all follow in the charitable steps created by those who came before us.

– The writer is 
executive director of ACT for Alexandria.