The History of Charitable Giving

The act of giving has been around basically since the beginning of time. Ancient Hebrews instituted a tax to help the poor. Since then, giving has evolved into a practice that many people follow; it’s become deeply ingrained in American culture and cultures around the world. But how did the switch from the Ancient Hebrews idea of giving transform into the practice we know today? Below we’ll delve into the brief history of charitable giving. Check it out!

2500 BCE

Even way back when, charitable giving was a trait that people valued highly. Rather than holding on to wealth, it was essential to give what you could, which was why the Ancient Hebrews used a mandatory tax, or a “tithe,” as you more likely know it as. These taxes we used to benefit the poor.

500 BCE

Fast forward to 500 BCE, when the word “philanthropy” first appeared in the drama “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus, which is where many people turn to when trying to understand the beginnings of philanthropy. The word comes from the Ancient Greek phrase philanthropia. Broken down, phil means love, and antro means man—or to love people.

1180 CE

Now, we’re in 1180 CE, and between this date and the latter, a few key events occurred. One of these was when the first Roman emperor, Augustus, gave public aid to around 200,000 people—here we see charitable giving on a large scale. In 1180 CE, Moses Maimonides wrote the “Mishneh Torah” and, within it, the “Eight Levels of Charity.” In short, you hope to get to Level 1, at the point the donor gives the recipient the wherewithal to become self-supporting. The succinct nature of these levels makes it easy to follow and easy to strive for.


The 1600s is when you can see the beginning of charitable giving in its most modern form. The Charitable Uses Act of 1601 identified what purposes could be defined as charitable, and that set the tone for the future. At the History of Giving, you can learn about all the wonderful ways that people and organizations donated during this time. Most notably, you’ll learn about how Harvard put on the first American fundraising drive and raised 500 pounds!


Philanthropy continued evolving through the mid-twentieth century, especially reacting to the major events of the century. Global economic downturns, increased government involvement in social welfare, and major wars—all these affected how people viewed giving and supporting communities. The majority of giving standards for donators and organizations came from this century.


All this history impacts how we give today. It’s incredible to see the increase in how much people donate over the years. In fact, according to the National Philanthropic Trust, “Americans gave $427.71 billion in 2018…the largest source of charitable giving came from individuals at $292.09 billion.” These numbers have increased every year as people find new ways to donate and offer support.

If you’re looking for a new way to donate and support different charities and organizations, check out GreenDrop. We accept home goods and clothing donation at our Whiteplains, NY donation center near NYC, and many other locations on the East Coast. Donating and building your way to the pinnacle level of philanthropy is as easy as dropping off some items to GreenDrop. See how your philanthropy can make a difference!