“It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man if he will make a business of it.”
— Benjamin Franklin
Many great ideas sprang from the mind of Benjamin Franklin: Franklin stoves, Poor Richard’s Almanac, bifocals, and of course that whole key and kite experiment. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence, put his life on the line by signing it and then rescued the struggling United States of America by negotiating France’s support in the fight against Britain.
You probably know all these things.
What you may not know is that Benjamin Franklin is considered the Father of American Philanthropy.
In those days, wealth was raised and distributed to those in need from the top: from monarchs, business owners or landowners. Just a few individuals controlled most of the money and where it was spent.
Franklin chafed at the idea. He believed it was far more beneficial to form a public-private partnership so that the people had a stake in both raising money and deciding how it was spent.
In 1727, Franklin organized a group of 12 artisans, including a shoemaker, a printer, a cabinetmaker and two surveyors. Calling themselves the Junto Club, the young men met on Friday evenings to share dinner and discuss how to better society.
One of the Junto’s first projects was the creation of the first public subscription library in British North America. In 1736, Franklin conceived and founded the first volunteer fire brigade in Pennsylvania.
Around 1743, he began circulating his proposal for the Academy of Philadelphia. Unlike other colonial colleges, which preferred the sons of leading families, Franklin’s college would be open to all deserving young men and would not be affiliated with any religious denomination. By 1750, the school had become the University of Pennsylvania, now an Ivy League college.
Franklin then turned his attention to founding a charitable hospital. When it began admitting patients in 1756, this organization became the nation’s first hospital, a philanthropic enterprise that served all comers, regardless of their ability to pay.
Franklin also pioneered the concept of the matching grant. And before his death in 1790 at the age of 84, Franklin became the president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.
Perhaps Franklin’s best-remembered charitable donation was his final bequest. Franklin left 1,000 pounds to his native Boston and another 1,000 pounds to his adopted Philadelphia.
Both bequests were held in trust, to gather interest for 200 years. At the end of the first century, each city had the right to withdraw from the trust; by the close of the second, each was required to spend it down.
In 1990, 200 years after Franklin’s death, Philadelphia elected to spend its remaining $2 million on scholarships for local high school students. The $5 million in Franklin’s Boston trust was used to establish a trade school, the Franklin Institute of Boston.
As today’s stories on the front page, the Business section and the Break feature show, charities are critical to America, and not just for helping those in need. Consider that annual U.S. defense spending totals 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product. The nonprofit sector surpassed the vaunted “military-industrial complex” in economic scope a quarter of a century ago.
Corporate giving is a big part of that, rising to nearly $21 billion last year, an 8 percent increase over 2016. Sensata, an Attleboro technology company, is an example of that, letting employees choose where they want to spend their charitable dollars and then matching them.
But as Franklin would have hoped, it is individual generosity that now provides the vast sum of charitable gifts. Between individual donations and bequests in wills, personal gifts come to over four times as much, every year, than all others sources of charitable funds combined.
That money provides relief for the poor, care for the sick, education for the young and thousands of other wonderful causes.
As Franklin would have said, it is a prodigious quantity of good.