The History of Donations and Giving

The act of sharing has long been a part of our human nature. Food, resources, shelter, support—these are all very early forms of donations from one person to another. This Giving Tuesday, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at some history and theory of donations and how they became a vital part of many organizations and their ongoing missions to make the world a better place.

Why We Share

Even studying fundamental food-sharing behaviors within a family can reveal some truths about why and when we share even with those close to us. According to a 2001 anthropological review out of University of Arizona, people in family groups tend to share food not only for one-on-one reciprocity but also in recognition of the net gains everyone receives from cooperation. If you think about it, this same logic can be said to apply even to our society and its many charity efforts as a whole. Sometimes we share with others so they will share back; other times, we simply share because we know that making things better for one person can make things better for all, even if we ourselves never personally see a return.

Early Donations: Tithes

In the earliest days of organized giving, religions oversaw and managed the giving. Tithes from nobility and common people alike funded the existence of resources and shelters like monasteries, asylums, and cloisters, where society’s sick or indigent could go for aid and support. We mainly associate these systems with the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, but even cultures as ancient as the Greeks required tithing to the poor at times of religious importance like the Olympic Games. However, the organization of religion has never fully taken away the necessity of one-on-one charity; tales like the Good Samaritan encourage not just kindness toward others, but the physical act of giving resources like food or clothes.

Patrons and Sponsors

Sponsors have always been around to support artists and causes that they believe in, but the Renaissance art movement really shaped our current history. Early scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, painters like DaVinci and Michelangelo, and musical geniuses like Bach and Beethoven would never have been able to do their work without the full funding of their lifestyle by patrons and sponsors that believed in them. We like to see today’s non-profit organizations in the same light. We’re able to continue reaching for our goals because of the support of the communities we operate in. Without sponsorships and supportive individuals, many organizations like ours wouldn’t exist today.

Tax-Exempt Non-profit Organizations

Exempting certain organizations like hospitals, churches, and fire departments from taxes is a practice that European immigrants brought to America with them. At the time, these organizations were considered “voluntary” and were organized and managed largely on a volunteer basis. A distinction was made early on between public-serving and member-serving charitable organizations. As time has passed, the distinction between these two in the tax code has become vastly more specific—while a hospital and a social fraternity may both be exempt from taxes, the nature and limits of that exception vary widely. (If you’re curious about specifics, the IRS has actually written a free history of the evolution of nonprofits and their taxation.)

Giving has clearly shaped human history in countless ways, both large and small. Whether you’re thinking about the success of your local food bank, the success achieved by volunteering your time, or the amazing research accomplishments of modern medicine, giving accomplishes many things and comes in many forms. It’s challenging, because so many causes in the world need support. Ours is one of them; our goal is to establish an endowment research center dedicated to pediatric cancers. Whether you can help us toward that goal with a physical donation, or by simply spreading the word to others, we appreciate your support and the human, loving spirit in which it is given.

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