Sign up for our newsletter to receive fresh insights that will provide you with direction to live a more joyous & generous life...

A Brief History of Nonprofit Fundraising in the U.S.

Nonprofit Fundraising Planning Meeting

In the United States, we accept the current state of the nonprofit fundraising world—lots of nonprofit organizations and lots of fundraising requests.

But it wasn’t always this way.

In Martin Morse Wooster’s You Can Succeed at Protecting your Legacy, he points out that in 1900 most philanthropy was local. Major national charities generally didn’t exist. In 1904 when Clara Barton stepped down at the American Red Cross the annual budget was only $2750.


Nonprofit fundraising grows up

But by 1925, major national charities began to dot the landscape: American Cancer Society, National Urban League, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts, Boys Club, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (During World War I, the American Red Cross raised and spent $400 million.)

As they rose up, so did their ability to raise funds. In fact, Charles Sumner Ward and Lyman Pierce of the YMCA and Harvard fundraiser Abbott Lawrence are credited with systematizing and perfecting fundraising.

Ward and Pierce created a campaign clock designed to raise funds in a short period of time. They had a 26-day campaign to raise $80,000 for the Washington, D.C., YMCA. They also hired publicists and encouraged leading business leaders to support the campaign.

Ward and Pierce also invented the fundraising dinner.

After his work for the YMCA, Ward applied his techniques for the American Red Cross. He used editorials, lantern slides, streetcar signs, banners and repeated appeals to raise $114 million for the American Red Cross.

Abbott Lawrence created the first long-term capital campaign designed to raise money for Harvard. He raised $2.5 million. His techniques were copied by other institutions around the country.


Major donors and foundations

One major donor reported receiving over 6,000 fundraising requests.Some donors created foundations just to insulate themselves from the large amount of mail they received.

During this period large foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller began establishing themselves. These foundations paved the way for modern philanthropy by researching and influencing social policies of the day.

It’s important that as we consider the nonprofit fundraising world of today that we keep in mind the past.

The end game should always be about solving real problems of the day, and not just keeping a nonprofit alive.


Related posts:
12 Million More Nonprofits!?
Charitable Giving on the Way Down in 2019?
3 Ideas to Think Outside the Fundraising Box

About Bill High

Bill is CEO of the Signatry: A Global Christian Foundation. He works with families, individual givers, and financial advisers to share the foundation’s message regarding biblical generosity and charitable giving. » Learn More. He is the co-author with David Green of Giving It All Away and Getting It All Back Again: The Way of Living Generously.

What People Are Saying

There are no comments yet – why not be the first to leave a comment?

Join The Conversation