What Former American Presidents Can Teach Us about Philanthropy

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Presidents’ Day is a federal holiday in the United States that began as a celebration of George Washington’s birthday and has expanded as a day to honor the memory of past presidents. In addition to their services to our nation, did you know that many of the men formerly known as POTUS were avid philanthropists? Today we’re taking a look back at what the presidents have to teach us about why donors engage in charitable giving.

Philanthropy Is an Investment in the Future

George Washington earned the moniker “Father of our Country” for his role as general of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States. In his private life, Washington was an avid philanthropist who quietly gave to organizations that provided care for orphans and distributed food for the poor and imprisoned.  

Washington’s most significant donation was made in 1796 to a fledgling school in Virginia. Liberty Hall Academy, now known as Washington and Lee University, still benefits from Washington’s $20,000 endowment. Today, university officials estimate that $11 from each student’s tuition still is underwritten by his gift, a great return on Washington’s 18th century investment.

Philanthropy Is Personal

Franklin Roosevelt’s life was impacted profoundly when he caught polio, a virus that often is contracted during childhood and can lead to paralysis or death. His experience as a handicapped person inspired him to establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis 1938, later renamed the March of Dimes. Roosevelt worked with the organization until his death to raise money for therapeutic treatments and research to develop a vaccine.

With direct funding from the March of Dimes, Dr. Jonas Salk introduced a vaccine in 1955 and changed the world of medicine forever. Through his personal experience and determination, Roosevelt helped eradicate a disease and established a foundation that continues to fund research on childhood illnesses today.

Philanthropy is Partnership

Jimmy Carter grew up on a peanut farm in Plains, Georgia during the Depression. After serving as the 39th President of the United States, Carter returned to Georgia and established The Carter Center, a foundation that “emphasizes action and measurable results,” and “believes that people can improve their own lives when provided with the necessary skills, knowledge, and access to resources.”

The organizations that Carter partners with offer training and economic access for underprivileged people around the world. One such organization, Habitat for Humanity, believes in giving people a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ by providing affordable housing for low income people who cannot qualify for a loan through traditional means. Carter believes that by creating partnerships with the people they serve, they not only provide short term benefits but long term opportunity and dignity as an equal stakeholder in their success as their benefactor.

Though each President has his own motivations guiding their philanthropic interests, it is clear that their desire to serve their communities continued well beyond their years as Commander-in-Chief.

Perhaps you have donors who think about the future? It might be time to discuss planned giving. Does a major gift prospect on your list have a strong personal connection to a cause addressed by your organization? Consider partnering up with your program director to craft a custom program that this donor will want to support. Finding out what motivates your donors and catering to those motivations, whether the donor is a former president or not, is always the best way to encourage giving.


Katie Norris, Client Account Manager