Saturday, March 1, 2014

Seven Fascinating Facts About Nonprofit History in the U.S.

I'm a history buff, as well as a nonprofit consultant. So, for your pleasure and entertainment, here are seven fascinating facts about the history of nonprofit organizations in the United States:
  • When was the first nonprofit board in American formed? The first board dates back to the earliest settlers. The Massachusetts Bay Company's charter created that board, whose members were to be chosen for their "honesty, wisdom, and expertise."
  • Who wrote the first documented fundraising appeal? Henry Dunster, Harvard's president, wrote the first written appeal for funds in 1643. He solicited wealthy and charitable Puritans living in England to support the American experiment.
  • Who was the first fundraising consultant? It was Benjamin Franklin! Here is some of his spot-on advice for the Reverend Gilbert Tennant who was trying to raise funds for a new meeting house: "I advise you to apply to all those whom you know will give something; next, to those whom you are uncertain whether they will give anything or not, and show them the list of who have given; and lastly, do not neglect those who you are sure will give nothing, for in some of those you may be mistaken." By the way, Reverend Tennant more than met his goal and was able to build a big, elegant building for his congregation.
  • What was the first big appeal for funds to help out in a disaster? In 1846, Americans gave generously for Irish famine relief during the big potato blight.
  • When were the first tax deductions instituted? First, Congress had to establish the income tax - this happened in 1913, when the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Later that year, the Revenue Act exempted organizations "organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, or educational purposes" from paying taxes. And in 1918, new laws permitted individuals to deduct charitable contributions that were up to 15% of their taxable income.
  • When and where were the first Girl Scout cookies sold? That would be Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1918 where the Mistletoe Troop sold their home-baked cookies as a service project. Here's the recipe: Cream one cup of butter and one cup of sugar; add two well-beaten eggs, two tablespoons of milk, one teaspoon of vanilla, two cups of flour, one teaspoon of salt, and two teaspoons of baking powder. Refrigerate for one hour. Roll out the dough, cut into shapes, sprinkle sugar on top, and bake at 375 for 8 to 10 minutes.
  • What big scandal rocked the nonprofit world in 1995? William Aramony, who was lauded as a visionary for his leadership of United Way from 1970 to 1992, was convicted on 23 counts of felony charges including conspiracy, fraud and filing false tax returns (apparently he used United Way funds to pay for his extramarital affairs). This scandal ushered in a whole new era of scrutiny, laws, and IRS regulations about nonprofit finance and governance.
Way back in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the great number of American voluntary organizations dedicated to providing charitable relief to the needy as well as offering solutions to society's problems. Many of our most well-known national nonprofits (from Planned Parenthood to the ACLU to Big Brothers Big Sisters) were founded in the early 1900's. By 1950 there were 50,000 nonprofits up and running in the U.S.; 250,000 by 1965; and a million by 1985. 

And today? Count yourself proud to be among the one and a half million plus nonprofits working to make this world a better place.

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