International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Charity, History of

  • Gabriele LingelbachEmail author
Living reference work entry


The investigation of the history of charity covers those activities in the past, which from the benefactor’s perspective should serve to help individuals or social groups who find themselves in a significantly worse situation and to remedy or alleviate this distress. Research has traced the range of motivations for such charity across time including the desire to promote oneself (reputation, social networks) and the pursuit of religious or other values. The state’s influence in promoting or limiting charity has also come into focus. Understanding of contemporary charity would be enhanced by interdisciplinary and comparative research that takes history into account.


Today’s research on charity is heavily focused on the present: sociologists, political scientists, economists, and researchers representing other disciplines are occupied with the causes, forms, and consequences of charitable giving in the present. In contrast, the history of charity is less discussed in research and is mostly rather concerned with selected individual aspects. The history of charity or philanthropy does not yet constitute its own research area with its own networks, historical peer-reviewed journal, academic society with its own conferences, or established reference works. Though there are some monographs presenting surveys (Bremner 1994), of which the majority remain within national frameworks (Friedman and McGarvie 2003; Marais 1999; Owen 1964), historical analysis is still in its beginning stages for many areas. Furthermore, the concepts with which historians of charity analyze their object are still in flux, and, in international comparison, the problem exists that many of the key categories of analysis are difficult to translate: The terms philanthropy, foundation, donation, alms, gift, third sector, etc. have very different meanings in various languages. In addition, the very different developments of philanthropic traditions and landscapes in cross-national comparison hinders historians specializing in charity from coming to an international agreement since historical research too often takes as its point of departure the researcher’s own contemporary, national experience.

In the following, charity should be understood as an act on the part of a giver, a “benefactor”: It is not the recipient of charitable gifts, but the one who gives the gift that is the focus of analysis. A rather broadly applied definition of charity encompasses thus a broad spectrum of activity, which can be differentiated at various levels. For one, such activities can be differentiated according to the purpose of the gift: Benefactors can be active in religious matters through the financing of church building or of Masses, an area that has had a fundamental significance for centuries. Other purposes include support for the arts, culture, education, or research, for example, the establishment of a chair at a university, the donation of a work of art from one’s private collection to a museum, or membership in a supporting organization for an orchestra. This form of private, civic engagement for public purposes has grown in importance primarily since the nineteenth century. A third area is the support of social purposes, that is, support for socially disadvantaged individuals or groups of people – be they the poor, the sick, the invalid, the disabled, widows, or orphans – with which the donor has no personal relationship. This type of purpose was also of great importance inasmuch as donations “for the poor” in Europe played a significant role already in the Middle Ages, later then in the private financing of urban poor relief in early modern history, or in civic foundations in support of hospitals or orphanages during the “long” nineteenth century. More recently, by contrast, the protection of nature, animals, and the environment has become a major target. A narrower concept of charity, like that used in this article, refers primarily to the third type, the social purpose, whereas the term “philanthropy” is also often applied to a broader definition of charity that includes the other targets mentioned.

Regarding the purpose of gifts, a distinction must also be made between those that were given directly to the needy, for example, alms to beggars in the European Middle Age cities, and those given to some type of intermediary institution, which then allocated the resources. Notably, since the early modern age, donations to intermediaries have increasingly displaced direct donations in the form of alms. These intermediaries have evolved and diversified over time: In ancient Egypt, for example, temples were the primary intermediaries, whereas in the Middle Ages religious institutions, such as cloisters and church parishes as well as religious orders such as the mendicant, hospital, and knightly orders dominated. Later, the distribution of charitable donations became increasingly secular: Since the “high” Middle Ages, charitable gifts were also given to city poor funds; in the late eighteenth century civic associations emerged to take on this task; in the twentieth century welfare federations were established; and over the last few decades internationally active organizations such as UNICEF or Oxfam have arisen to distribute charitable donations to groups in need of assistance.

A second level at which one can differentiate types of charity is the nature of the gift given: A particularly frequent form was the giving of money, but goods such as food or clothing also were made available for charitable purposes. Furthermore, and third, people also gave of their time, often providing their expertise, that is, volunteering. Historical research has primarily focused on monetary charity and has distinguished four forms: endowments or trusts, donations, membership fees paid to a philanthropic association, and, more seldom, purchases of stocks of charitable enterprises. Endowments generally were composed of large sums of money or real estate, which income (interest or earned income) would finance the charitable purpose. For example, if a patron in the nineteenth century created a scholarship fund to benefit a university, it meant that the money would be invested, and the scholarships would be financed out of the interest income. Since in many cases large sums were made available in the creation of an endowment, the gift was usually well thought through and legally safeguarded. Donors generally came from the wealthier classes of the population. In contrast to endowment gifts, donations were not invested, but rather were applied directly to the donation’s purpose, for example, when one gave money as part of a collection for the victims of an earthquake catastrophe. For the most part, such donations were rather modest sums; often they ranged below a certain threshold such that a donation could also be part of the everyday activities of the less wealthy social strata and frequently occurred without a long period of consideration. An example would be collections during religious services that had taken place since the second and third centuries AD. A third form of giving was the payment of membership fees to a charitable association: In this case, regular contributions would be made available so that the association could finance charitable purposes as set out in its bylaws. This involved a collective act, in contrast to the creation of an endowment, which was carried out mostly on an individual basis.

Finally, one can distinguish between those forms of charity for which one receives no explicit material or immaterial service in return and a gift that implies some sort of quid pro quo or service in return. Thus, for example, already in the fifteenth century there existed charitable lotteries, through which one received a chance of winning in exchange for a donation, or later also charity galas, during which one expected to be entertained in return for the money given. However, with such types of activity, the money donated had to be of significantly higher value than that of the service received in return so that the gift could still be considered charitable. In light of this definition, it also becomes clear which topics are not dealt with in the history of charity: For example, it does not involve help in the context of friendship networks, nor the lending of an interest-free loan to a business colleague, nor the giving of a sum of money to a family member in case of an emergency. Furthermore, this concept of charity excludes sponsoring, since there exists the hope that the donation will “pay off” through the accompanying advertising effect.

In consequence, the investigation of the history of charity covers all those activities in the past, which from the benefactor’s perspective should serve to help those individuals or social groups who find themselves in a significantly worse situation and to remedy or alleviate this distress – be it physical, spiritual, psychological, or economic.

Key Issues

A key question for historical research is certainly how the motivations for social engagement have changed over time (Cavallo 1991). Somewhat oversimplified, two traditions regarding the motivations for charitable activities can be differentiated, presented here as ideal types: euergetism and alms giving. They differ in the aims pursued and the motives behind the giving. The phenomenon of euergetism is connected to the Greco-Roman cultural sphere and was intensively studied by the French historian Paul Veyne (1976), who analyzed how wealthy citizens of the Greek and Roman cities donated large sums of money for a variety of public purposes, for example, alleviation of a famine or improvement of the city infrastructure in the form of roads and public baths, as well as for the amusement of the citizens by financing circuses or theaters or to nurture patriotic sentiment by creating monuments, and so forth. The motives that drove euergetists to contribute intensively to the public good did not include help for others per se; the aim was rather to promote the donor’s political career, to build his reputation, public esteem, and admiration, to build up social capital and networks in form of clientele, or, in the case of a donation in the form of a bequest, a legacy the donor hoped would be remembered by the citizens.

The second tradition of giving money or goods for the public good goes back to the Oriental and Jewish traditions and was adopted in the Christian cultural sphere (Bolkestein 1939). In this connection, alms played a crucial role. The motives for alms giving differed very much from those for euergetism: since they were rooted in religious beliefs, it was a much more internalized, value-driven behavioral pattern. Giving alms to the poor and starving was thought to be pleasing in the eyes of God. The donor hoped to be rewarded by God with a happy life before death, and that her or his soul would be saved in the afterlife (Geremek 1994; Schubert 1992). This was assured by the fact that the receiver had to pray for the soul of the donor. Through secularization, the spectrum of previously internalized motives for charitable activities expanded to the humanitarian and ideological (e.g., in the form of international socialist assistance or in the form of “patriotic” donations for the families of soldiers killed in action).

For most charitable activities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both types of motivation can be detected, but generally in varying proportions. The charitable activities of those of higher class status tended most often to take on euergetic characteristics: frequently the creation of an endowment for hospitals or orphanages had as much to do with seeking recognition within one’s own class, social advancement, or social boundary setting (inclusion within or exclusion from the local elite) as with helping the needy and serving society (Schulz 1998). Charitable acts could serve the purpose of accumulating social and symbolic capital, which in turn would be converted also into economic capital or could legitimate demands for political participation or dominance. For example, Thomas Adam examined selected American, Canadian, and European cities to determine to what extent newer groups within the bourgeoisie (i.e., families that became wealthy through industrialization) sought – with the help of social and cultural foundations – to build social capital and enter the circles of the already established elite during the second half of the nineteenth century (Adam 2009). At the same time, social networks could also be sealed off against newcomers through philanthropic organizations such as charitable associations, in order to protect the social exclusivity of the elite. Philanthropy could also be used to underpin a political claim to leadership alongside a social or cultural claim (Adam and Retallack 2001). Here the question also arises whether social discipline objectives were also being pursued through charitable engagement, for example, to bring middle- and upper-class models of behavior closer to the lower classes during times of rising social conflicts accompanying the industrial age (Schulz 1998). Charitable engagement can be interpreted as an attempt to accommodate relatively deprived social groups in order to relieve social tensions and stave off threatening social-revolutionary developments. Thus in early modern times frequently made distinction between the worthy poor (which should be supported) and the unworthy poor can be interpreted as a call to control the behavior of the deprived popular classes. At the same time, the social agency of the poor can also be pointed to: The recipients of help often used the gifts received in thoroughly stubborn ways and not always according to the directives of the givers. When one examines charity via the categories of social and political power, the question generally arises to what extent it also implies a hierarchical relationship between giver and recipient and thereby leads to the confirmation and perpetuation of social structures and/or political inequality.

In other acts of charitable activities, euergetic motivations and those related to social relationships either within one’s own social class or toward those of other classes were not as important; instead, convictions – religious or secular – came to the fore. Unfortunately the analysis of these motives for charitable activities in earlier times will often have its limits: While founders and large donors have in many cases left documents behind in which they discuss the reasons they made money available for social purposes, the everyday giving of smaller sums on the part of the average person produced fewer written sources. Historians exploring the motivations for charitable activities are regularly confronted with the generally lacking empirical basis.

Another question pursued by historians is the influence of state activities on the charitable engagement of citizens. Two opposing hypotheses exist: Some historians assume that the expansion of the state’s sphere of activity has led to a retreat of private engagement (crowding out), while others argue to the contrary that crowding out has not occurred at all (McCarthy 2003, p. 3). For example, the development of university financing in the United States, in comparison with France or Germany, speaks for the thesis of crowding out. In the United States during the nineteenth century, public agencies contributed to the financing of higher education only to a limited extent and left room for private support in the areas of, for example, scholarships, professorial chairs, buildings, and even athletics. In Europe, by contrast, the state took on the financing of higher education to a much greater extent; private grants or endowments for universities were much less frequent. This difference gives evidence for a crowding out effect. Against the assumption that state activities always crowd out private engagement another example can be put forward: citizen engagement for social concerns in Germany reached its first peak at the same time as the Bismarckian social welfare state was introduced and then extended (Sachße and Tennstedt 1980; Hein 1997). Furthermore, it must be considered that many projects and institutions in the social assistance area were established in the form of a public/private partnership in which private and public funds flowed together. From the perspective of historians, some doubts can be raised against the general assumption that the expansion of the social welfare state always and everywhere led to a crowding out of private engagement for social purposes.

State intervention also plays a role for historians of charity in another sense, for example, whether tax policy favored charitable giving to a greater or lesser extent. Public entities also affect the field of private charity through lawmaking as well, insofar as, especially in the twentieth century, they enacted the legal framework for social engagement, for example, laws related to foundations, associations, and fundraising, which had clear impact on charitable activities (Liermann 1963). This is clearly seen in the example of West Germany after World War II: In the FRG a ban on public fundraising by private individuals and most organizations stemming from a 1934 law was in effect until the early 1960s. With only few exceptions, charitable initiatives did not receive governmental approval to approach citizens to seek donations. Since only a handful of organizations received this permission, public agencies regulated charitable contributions according to their own agenda. As soon as that law was replaced in the early 1960s with a broadly liberal one, the donations “market” in Germany “exploded,” and a multitude of organizations were established that competed for citizens’ donations and offered a significantly broader spectrum of purposes to be supported than previously. The change took place once the state reduced its regulatory measures (Lingelbach 2007).

The role of the state regarding charitable activities leads to the question of how the framework for charity took shape under dictatorships. Historians have analyzed how the National Socialist regime exploited the charitable activities of the population for its own purposes and introduced collection activities for propaganda purposes (Vorländer 1986). For East Germany (the former GDR), a case study on donation collections for third world countries determined that the population continued to make significant donations, but at the same time, the government intensively monitored and influenced the campaigns. The regime also exploited the fundraising campaigns, on the one hand, domestically insofar as it sought to strengthen the population’s identification with the socialist system, and, on the other hand, for its foreign policy goals since the fundraising campaigns were used to achieve diplomatic recognition of the second German state on the part of newly established states in the process of decolonization (Witkowski 2009).

Another substantial research area for the history of charity relates to the development of intermediaries. As already mentioned, donations in particular were most often not given directly to the needy in the form of alms, but rather to institutions that redistributed these gifts. So, for example, the donations of the American population for the suffering people in Europe after World War II were given to intermediaries such as the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE), which then handed out food packages to the beneficiaries. The growing significance and differentiation of the intermediary institutions over time resulted in a clear influence of their interests and motivations over the charitable process. This can be retraced using the example of the medieval church-related institutions as well as by way of the communal poor funds in early modernity or the big welfare federations of the twentieth century. The intermediaries followed their own ideals (one thinks of the missionary institutions that were financed through donations) or also tangible (social-) political goals at the same time as they had an interest in their own institutional survival. They were in the position to direct the currents of giving in specific directions, to allow the money to flow to the purposes or target groups of their choosing, thereby taking on a society-shaping function.

Historians of charity also investigate which social groups were most intensively engaged. As an example, the charitable activities of women are more closely examined. In the age of foundations and charitable associations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it can be asked, to what extent women became involved in charitable activities to achieve social influence and to play a more decisive role in public life, or to build “parallel power structures” (McCarthy 1990; Quataert 2001). Since charitable engagement remained within the framework of gender-defined stereotypes of women as caring and sacrificing, middle- and upper-class women were able to seize and define a sphere of influence outside of the home long before the introduction of female suffrage, without in the process endangering the gender roles assigned to them.

Since women as a marginalized group sought to achieve social impact through charity, the engagement of ethnic minorities can also be considered from this vantage point. The above average engagement of Jewish citizens in the German Empire can be interpreted in this direction; charity offered the possibility to free oneself from one’s marginal status at least partially; at the same time, Jewish philanthropic activity could also serve to create Jewish identity or to prevent and defend against anti-Semitic prejudices or treatment (Liedtke 1999; Penslar 1993). Similarly, African Americans became involved in charitable organizations in order to improve the social situation of blacks in the United States, for example, during the civil rights era (Clegg 2003).

Future Directions

From this brief presentation of research conducted to date, it becomes clear which topics and questions could be of interest for future research. Included here surely is international comparison: with few exceptions, most studies on the history of charity are of local, regional, or national nature, whereas a comparative approach could help to draw out the specifics of the developments and the causes for the differences between the paths charitable giving took. Various traditions of charitable activities have developed in a path-dependent way so that, in the different regions of the world, charity is practiced differently even today and has taken on a variety of meanings. Differing practices of social distinction have similarly led to diverse forms of philanthropic expression; different religious orientations and different legal frameworks have led up to now to variations in the ways people become engaged with the help of foundations or donations for others, etc. In this case, comparative analyses offer an as yet unexploited potential for enhanced knowledge.

Historical research related to charity can also achieve greater significance in the framework of transnational history. In the age of globalization, assistance provided to people in need beyond one’s own local, regional, or national frame of reference gains ever more importance. In a media-dominated world in which pictures of starving people or victims of natural catastrophes reach every affluent household, giving on behalf of distant “others” gains more weight. Even if well into the twentieth century charity focused on the local needy (Hein 1997), and later also one the needy of one’s own nation, still there were also earlier signs of an international solidarity that are worth examining. In doing so, the development of media must be incorporated into the discussion and, in particular, one must consider that charity often conformed to the functional logic of the media: International aid organizations increasingly needed the attention of the media in order to bring their concerns to the potential donors, which also meant that they had to adapt their range of actions and their approaches to the interests of newspapers, magazines, and television in order to be heard (Benthall 1993).

Furthermore, charity research offers a prominent field for interdisciplinary research, for example, in the area of motivation research. Anthropologists, psychologists, social scientists, and specialists in religious studies could work together with historians to examine the changing motivations for charitable activities over time. However, the closing of these and other research gaps calls for an historically based determination of the key analytical categories and concepts to lead international and interdisciplinary research activities to fruitful results.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Christian Albrechts Universität KielKielGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  • Helmut K. Anheier
    • 2
    • 3
  • Stefan Toepler
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.HamburgGermany
  2. 2.University of HeidelbergHeidelbergGermany
  3. 3.Hertie School of GovernanceBerlinGermany
  4. 4.Schar School of Policy and GovernmentGeorge Mason UniversityArlingtonUSA
  5. 5.Center for the Study of Civil Society and the Non-Profit SectorNational Research University Higher School of EconomicsMoscowRussian Federation