“Charity”: A Brief History Lesson

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What does “charity” mean?  The IRS defines it broadly as “relief of the poor and distressed or underprivileged; advancement of religion, education, or science, erection of public buildings or monuments or works lessening the burdens of government; promotion of social welfare by organizations designed to accomplish the above purposes or (i) lessen neighborhood tensions; (ii) eliminate prejudice and discrimination; (iii) defend human and civil rights secured by law; or (iv) combat community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”  That covers quite a bit of territory for “charitable” status, at least under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Where did our country’s notions of “charity” originate?  Scholars trace charity back to pre-Christian civilizations that affirmed the virtues of giving to the poor and needy as part of a just and moral society.   Through Christianity’s spread over time and territory, charitable principles gained further ground.  Christian practices such as alms-giving, helping the suffering, tending the sick, and providing educational opportunities advanced such principles.  Spiritual attitudes, not government initiatives, motivated people to provide charitable assistance.

According to UNC Law Professor Thomas Kelley, the English definition of charity gradually shifted during medieval times.  Increased government attention to charitable work slowly replaced spiritually oriented initiatives.   Sweeping political changes, such as King Henry VIII’s seizure of ecclesiastical properties, and concurrent economic transformation, led to new laws for administering charity and reducing poverty.  Among other things, these laws sought to put able-bodied poor people to work.  The laws bound vagrants into apprenticeships, suppressed vagrancy and identified the “deserving poor” who were eligible for charitable provision.

The starting point for modern Anglo-American “charity” is generally considered to be the English Statute of Charitable Uses of 1601.  The Statute defined legitimate charitable “uses” as including “the relief of aged, impotent and poor people, some for maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners, schools of learning, free schools and scholars in universities, some for repair of bridges, ports, havens, causeways, churches . . . , some for education and preferment of orphans, some for or towards relief, stock or maintenance for houses of correction, some for marriages of poor maids, aid and help of . . . persons decayed . . . .”.   This law reflected an increasing government concern for addressing poverty and other societal needs.  It built upon the historically well-developed religious approach to charity.

Moving forward to the New World, the American version of charity developed along the two parallel tracks:  religion and government.  Faith-based traditions, on the one hand, contributed spiritually informed notions of community, volunteerism, and self-help to the expression of charity.   That expression has endured.  Over the course of our nation’s rich history – through its volunteer societies, in the midst of wartime suffering, from “rags to riches” stories of individual accomplishment, the rise of the middle class, and the government’s sprawling expansion during the twentieth century – Christian notions of charity have persisted. 

On the other hand, government initiatives have also shaped expressions of charity.  The federal government first recognized income tax exemption for charitable corporations over 100 years ago, thereby birthing what we now know as the “Section 501(c)(3) public charity” and giving rise to the nonprofit sector.  Increasing government involvement hasn’t come without challenges however.  Many nonprofits suffer identity crises.  From the government perspective, the fundamental question, “What is charity?” remains. Governmental agencies recognize tax exemptions based on religious, educational, and other “charitable” organizational structures and activities.  However such agencies struggle to propound unified consistent standards according to which those determinations are made.  The elusive nature of “charity” as such, is likely a significant source of the confusion.   

At this point in our history, the nonprofit charitable sector is immense, complex, and overall very good.  Like the third leg of a three-legged stool, the nonprofit sector, along with the private and public sectors, stabilizes American society.  Religious institutions, social service organizations, and countless other nonprofits continue to feed the hungry, help the sick, educate people, and benefit our communities in countless ways.   Most recently, they have been joined by “social entrepreneurship” and “venture philanthropy” organizations, which are giving new energy to our charitable roots of helping people out of poverty, doing good in the world, and seeking beneficial social returns.  And while public charities utilize government resources for their economic support and rely tax-deductible donations, such organizations fill a societal hole that historically has been unfilled by the private and public sectors. 

For Professor Kelley’s article on the historical roots of charity, please see 73 Fordham Law Review 2437 (2005), “Rediscovering Vulgar Charity:  A Historical Analysis of America’s Tangled Nonprofit Law.”