The Winter 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine features the article "American History's Greatest Philanthropists" where the editors announced the inaugural class of the Philanthropy Hall of Fame. While inclusion into the Baseball Hall of Fame can be determined by statistical analysis, like the number of home runs or strikeouts, it's much harder to define greatness in philanthropy. What is more important, the size of the gift, its percentage of net worth, or the return on charitable dollar? Also, is effectiveness determined by the number of people served, or the years of lasting influence?
To make their task easier, the editors only took into account accomplishments attained within the individuals own lifetime, thus excluding living donors as their work is not yet finished. They also focused on philathropy conducted with one's own money rather than institutional giving. The end result is a list of close to sixty great American philanthropists, from founding funders like Benjamin Franklin through recent figures like John T. Walton. To give you an idea of what's included I've linked to five HOF profiles below, with a snippet from each biography. Online entries also includes bibliographies for further reading.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)
Throughout his life, but most notably while living in Philadelphia, Franklin led a number of private, voluntary initiatives to enhance civil society. “It is prodigious the quantity of good that may be done by one man, if he will make a business of it,” he once observed. Historian Edmund Morgan suggested he “was behind virtually every scheme that made [Philadelphia] an attractive place to live.”
Andrew Carnegie (1835 - 1919)
Carnegie may be the most influential philanthropist in American history. The scale of his giving is almost without peer: adjusted for inflation, his donations exceed those of virtually everyone else in the nation’s history. He built some 2,800 lending libraries around the globe, founded what became one of the world’s great research universities, endowed one of the nation’s most significant grantmakers, and established charitable organizations that are still active nearly a century after his death.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839 – 1937)
After starting life in humble circumstances, Rockefeller came to dominate the burgeoning petroleum industry by the time he was 40 years old. He became the richest man of his time, and indeed has a good claim to perhaps being the richest self-made man who ever lived.
He was equally distinguished as a philanthropist. Within his lifetime, Rockefeller helped launch the field of biomedical research and revolutionized medical training in the United States, championed the cause of public sanitation, vigorously promoted the cause of education nationwide, without distinction of sex, race, or creed, and created the University of Chicago, virtually from scratch, and within a decade turned it into one of the world’s leading universities.
Mary Elizabeth Garrett (1853 - 1915)
Garrett ranks among the nation’s most significant benefactors of higher education for women. Born in 1853 to wealth and privilege, Garrett was the third child (and only daughter) of railroad tycoon John Work Garrett, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Mary Garrett’s inheritance would make her one of the wealthiest women in the United States, but it was her business savvy and shrewd philanthropy that helped her to achieve some of the greatest social improvements of her generation.
Oseola McCarty (1908 - 1999)
When she retired in 1995, her hands painfully swollen with arthritis, this washerwoman who had been paid in little piles of coins and dollar bills her entire life had $280,000 in the bank.
Even more startling: she decided to give most of it away—not as a bequest, but immediately.
Setting aside just enough to live on, McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for worthy but needy students seeking the education she never had. When they found out what she had done, over 600 men and women in Hattiesburg and beyond made donations that more than tripled her original endowment. Today, the university presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships every year.
You may also be interested in reading my previous post from March 2012 on The History of Philanthropy in the U.S.
The Foundation Center--New York