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From Franklin to Philanthropy: A History of Altruistic Storytelling

November 22, 2016 • Caelin Niehoff

The idea of philanthropy wasn’t born yesterday, and a foundation’s ability to speak to the public didn’t begin with Facebook. As we begin building the communication programs of tomorrow, what better place to look than the creative muscle memory of our past? How have philanthropies elevated themselves throughout history in times of stress and technological change?

This is a photograph of Benjamin Franklin.
In addition to being a founding father, Benjamin Franklin was also a founder of organized public aid.

Individuals throughout the history of the United States have used philanthropy to respond to the public’s needs. One of the first people in Colonial America to begin thinking about how to organize public aid was Benjamin Franklin. He was interested in how people with similar interests could compile resources across shared networks, rather than wait for money to trickle down through a hierarchy. In the decades before the Revolution, he established an array of philanthropic institutions — namely libraries, societies, hospitals and universities.[1] And as one of young America’s first great communicators, Franklin masterfully leveraged the technology of his day — printing — to create an impressive variety of formats and channels including broadsheets, pamphlets, almanacs, sheet music and books. He has been referred to as America’s first blogger and social networker.[2]

Shortly after Americans gained independence, some of the country’s oldest organizations emerged, organizations such as the Library of Congress (1800), the Smithsonian Institution (1846) and the New York Philharmonic (1842). More than eight decades later, the Civil War presented a new set of challenges for the American public, giving rise to welfare groups, the Salvation Army (1865) and the U.S. Sanitary Commission, later known as the American Red Cross (1881). Nineteenth-century charitable organizations, including American businesses, relied on the young nation’s early infrastructure. A national postal service brought newspapers to people’s homes, while steam revolutionized both transportation and printing.[3] These innovations made communications cheaper, faster and feasible across greater distances, inspiring fundraising campaigns that traveled across the country for the first time. And not all campaigns spread from east to west. The Salvation Army’s iconic red buckets originated in San Francisco in 1891, and by 1901, “kettle contributions” were collected in New York City.[4]

The Gilded Age and the American industrialists who followed transformed philanthropy in the United States as the country experienced unprecedented levels of both poverty and wealth. Rockefeller, Peabody and Carnegie made and gave millions. Suddenly, philanthropy could be less specialized and more comprehensive. The modern foundation was born and America’s philanthropic sector proliferated. Its birth ran parallel to developments in mass media, from the radio to motion picture industries.

Since the rise of the modern foundation, philanthropies have had to respond to changes in culture and technology. The Red Cross responded to such changes during World War I. Their ability to respond to this crises through storytelling can help us better understand the communication strategies of tomorrow’s philanthropies.

The Red Cross on the Big Screen

This is a photograph of an advertisement put out by the Red Cross in 1917 to raise $100 million during World War 1.In 1917 the Red Cross set out to raise $100 million. Even by today’s standards, that’s ambitious. Against the backdrop of the First World War, the organization needed to galvanize support around the initiative. When people think of the Red Cross’ wartime campaigns, they think of patriotic posters. They don’t think—motion pictures. But that’s exactly what the association created.

A month before the fundraising kicked off, the Red Cross released The Spirit of the Red Cross. And it was a hit. The movie told the story of a Red Cross nurse, offering an inside look at the organization. The New York Times’ review of the film read, “Picture will interpret the organization for American people,” and claimed that “Some of the best work done in motion picture making is said to have been put into the film.”[5] By using a medium that was of the moment and relevant to the American people, the organization was able to tell a story that jump-started a national campaign. They saw a change in media and crisis point in history not as obstacles, but as vital fundraising opportunities.

For more information on how storytelling can help your organization, check out our comprehensive guide to corporate storytelling.

*This article was previously published in The Communications Network Change Agent magazine and re-posted with their permission.
[1] Daniel Gifford, “Was Benjamin Franklin the Father of American Philanthropy?” The Smithsonian, December 1, 2015,
[2] Stephan Richter, “Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Franchiser?” The Globalist, May 5, 2012,
[3] “Newspapers and Magazines.” American Eras. Vol. 5: The Reform Era and Eastern U.S. Development, 1815–1850. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 116–119. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
[5] “Spirit of the Red Cross; Picture Will Interpret the Organization for American People,” The New York Times, April 21, 1918.

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