120 Years Of Fundraising History: What Can We Learn?

Since there have been good causes to support, there has been fundraising. 

Communities have rallied to meet needs around the globe and throughout history. In the last one hundred years or so, the “how” of fundraising has changed dramatically. 

The ways we raise and give money constantly change due to new situations, needs, priorities, and technologies. 

So let’s go on a little journey through time to see how fundraising has changed in the past century, and see what we can learn to fundraise today from fundraising history. 

Hands holding a wallet, removing folded one dollar bill.
Whether dollars or gold doubloons, people have always given to causes they care about.


Going Way Back: Fundraising Before 1900

If you want to write a doctoral thesis on pre-1900 fundraising, you will have plenty of fascinating material. But I am going to take a wild guess that you don’t actually want to read that thesis right now. 

So, for the sake of brevity, we’ll skip the deep-dive into academics, and instead, provide you with some quick historical fundraising facts to wow your peers at your next cocktail party.

Quick Fundraising History Facts:

  • Charitable giving is featured in the holy texts and practices of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among other religions. 
  • The Sung Dynasty ran soup kitchens in China in the 10th century.
  • In 1552, Roxelana, wife of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, opened a charitable complex in Jerusalem for widows, orphans, and the poor.
  • The Zulu tribe’s tradition of giving, in which givers and receivers are equals, was established in the 17th century.
  • The word “philanthropy” came into the English language in 1600.
  • In 1601, the Statute of Charitable Uses is passed in England, putting the responsibility to care for the poor on local parishes. The revolutionary thing about this practice is that the implementation of what we’d now call “programs” was done in the private sector, but overseen by the government.
  • Benevolent societies and charitable endeavors like schools, refugee relief, orphanages, and hospitals popped up all over the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • The Salvation Army ran their first Christmas Kettle street campaign in 1891.

Pioneers of Modern Fundraising:1900-1915 

So we’ve established that the charitable principles that drive giving have remained consistent across history. 

By 1900, communities and people gave to help others in need, make changes, and build new things for centuries. However, the way they raised funds to support these services changed dramatically around this time. 

How did modern fundraising come to be? Let’s take a look at fundraising history.

It all started with the YMCA.

The Village People, wearing their distinctive costumes.
This one.

The fundraising efforts of two early 20th century pioneers at the Young Men’s Christian Association defined the tools and techniques that were used in modern fundraising for the rest of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

Here is the short version of the story: Frank L. Pierce was tasked with raising money to build a YMCA in Washington D.C. In two years of campaigning, he raised $270,000, but still needed $80,000, and donations had stopped coming in.

Let’s take a moment to empathize with Mr. Pierce. We’ve all been there, at the tail end of a campaign, watching tumbleweeds drift by instead of checks coming in. It’s not fun at all. 

Fortunately, Pierce was about to get a partner who would help him raise the money, and invent modern fundraising in the process. 

In 1905, Pierce partnered with Charles Sumner Ward. The two men created a campaign to raise the rest of the money, trying things that no one had ever done. 

The Top 3 Innovations of the YMCA School of Fundraising

  • Pierce and Ward engaged a publicist for their campaign and used corporate donations to pay for advertising
  • They purposely kept their campaign short, capping it at 27 days
  • They created a “campaign clock” to measure the time passing

It worked very well. Pierce and Ward raised the money, and by 1913, they were working internationally, running multi-million dollar campaigns using the techniques they’d developed. 

At about the same time, Bishop William Lawrence, the pastor of St. John’s Memorial Church at Harvard and head of the alumni association, was asked to raise $2.5 million to increase the liberal arts professors’ salaries. 

Raising money for salaries was new for college fundraising. Historically, alumni had given to capital campaigns, but would they give without the promise of a new building or campus improvement? It was up to Lawrence to find out.

Black and white photo of brick building on college campus.
People love buildings.

He raised the money, mostly by appealing to alumni in a “genteel” manner, via a letter asking for their help. The alumni came through, and Lawrence is credited with creating the college endowment building drive.

Lawrence’s approach was deeply respectful of his audience, and he kept things low-key on purpose. “If you dominate or dragoon a man by your personality, you may get his money once, but not the next time,” he once said.

And so Lawrence’s successful approach has been solidified in our fundraising history.

Early 20th Century Takeaways

The techniques established by Pierce, Ward, and Lawrence are still in use today, whether or not we know to credit them. In fact, they’re all over CauseVox, and you’re probably already using them year after year.

A CauseVox campaign that shows total raised, and a campaign progress bar
Countdown of days? Progress bar? It’s the modern version of Pierce and Ward’s campaign clock!

Fundraising During the World Wars: Getting Organized

Civilian fundraising was a big part of life on the home front during both World Wars. Fundraising professionals and private citizens joined together to raise money to support the military, hospitals, and the Red Cross. 

Many small, local charities merged during WWI (1914-1918) to increase their effectiveness, and many chose to remain big and national after the war was over. 


During the Great Depression (1929-1939), people remained charitable, even when their resources were limited. Changes in the tax law made corporate donations possible to an extent, and they became a bigger part of the fundraising pie. 

Fundraising also shifted to include appeals to lower and middle-class donors, rather than only seeking major gifts from wealthy people.

Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life holding out a handful of money and asking, "How much do you need?"

WWII (1939-1945) brought a return to war-focused fundraising, and concentration on a cause. People came together to support the troops and try to solve the social issues caused by war, like famine and refugee resettlement. 

Fundraising Takeaways

  • Major gifts are great, but don’t forget the average donor–small gifts can make a big difference.
  • Corporate partners can give you a lift, even when the economy isn’t so good

Post-War: Enter the Television (1949-1970)

It’s hard to express just how much television changed the world. From what we buy, to how we talk, television has shaped our culture in a myriad of ways by bringing images, messages, and people directly into our homes. Thus, it’s no surprise that television changed fundraising history.

The first telethon was in 1949. Telethons may seem old-fashioned now, but this was cutting edge technology in 1949. 

Before World War II, there were approximately 7,000 home televisions in America. In 1950, only 9% of American homes had a television set. But by 1960, that percentage was dramatically higher at 87%!

The structure of telethons was established early on, and did not change drastically for many years. 

It featured a long block of airtime (the “‘thon” of the telethon, as in “marathon”) hosted by a celebrity. The show alternated between entertainment and appeals for pledges to benefit a charity. 

Telethons changed fundraising by offering a broader platform than a charity could reach on its own. In the days before cable, with limited channels, if someone was going to watch TV, there was a pretty good chance they would encounter your telethon. 

In addition to raising money, this method also raised awareness of the causes.

Jerry Lewis hosting Telethon

The most famous of telethons began in New York City in 1966, when the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Labor Day Telethon, hosted by Jerry Lewis, first aired. 

The 21-hour event raised more than a million dollars out of the gate, prompting Lewis to paint an extra digit on the pledge counter display. 

In 1968, the telethon was shown on four additional stations in New York and Massachusetts. WHEC-TV chose to cut away from the program to show local volunteers taking calls, and another standard feature of telethons–the local segment– was born. 

By 1970, the MDA Telethon was broadcast coast-to-coast. It ran nationally, hosted by Lewis, until 2010, and then underwent a change in format— shorter and more appealing to modern audiences. 

Don’t Change The Channel: Fundraising Commercials (1980-2000)

Telethons weren’t the only fundraising happening on television. Taking a page out of the Ward and Pierce YMCA book, nonprofits started advertising campaigns on TV, a practice that continues to this day.

Television advertising is expensive, but in the early 1980s nonprofits took advantage of less in-demand time slots (i.e. late night, early morning), and the lower rates available on the new cable television.

Advertising on TV allowed nonprofits to tell stories quickly. It used all the tools of commercial advertising to demonstrate the impact of organizations, including evocative music, intense or even disturbing images, and hard-sell pleas for donations from celebrity spokespeople. 

Commercials weren’t cost-effective for every organization, but when they paid off, they really paid off. 

Sally Struthers became the celebrity spokesperson for the Christian Children’s Fund in 1976 and is credited with bringing the organization millions of dollars. Her work, first for the CCF, and later for Save the Children, became iconic.

Remember these ads?

Television advertising was not without controversy. The emotional and dramatic storytelling style of some charity ads crossed the line into exploiting the populations it sought to serve, portraying people in the developing world as helpless victims, with little regard for their dignity. 

This style of ad fell into disfavor, and organizations (generally) moved in a more positive direction with their imagery and fundraising pitches in the 1990s.

In the 21st century, TV advertising continues to be effective for some organizations. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raised $30 million in the first three years of running their ad featuring singer Sarah McLachlan. 

I will give those puppies anything they want, as soon as I stop crying

During the latter half of the 20th century, nonprofits didn’t only use TV, of course. They continued to use direct mail letters and in-person fundraising events, but a new game changer, even bigger than television, was quietly developing…digital fundraising.

Lessons From The Late 20th Century

  • Emotional and visual storytelling works
  • It is possible to go too far. Respect the populations you serve.

Online Fundraising (2000-present)

The Internet

In 1997, 18% of American households reported accessing the Internet. By 2003, more households than not (54.7%) had Internet access

A chart showing increasing home internet use from 1984-2011

This upward trend continued in the following years. Like television before it, the technological advance of computers and the Internet would radically change society within a decade.

Nonprofits began to adapt to this change. At first, they used the Internet much as they had print and direct mail–websites provided static information about organizations and their causes, like a brochure, and email emerged as a lower-cost way to distribute appeals and newsletters. 

As people became more comfortable paying for things online (Paypal was founded in 1998), online donations became more common. 

Social Media

In the early years of the 21st century, the Internet became even more interactive. Facebook was founded in 2004 and allowed nonprofits to start pages in April of 2006. At this time, nonprofits began to use social media to build relationships, share content, and fundraise.

Artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs started using the Internet to raise money for their projects in the late 1990s, and “crowdfunding” hit the mainstream in the early 2000s. 

Once again, the technology was new, but the message was classic–if everyone pitches in, we can make something new.

Social media provided an easy way for people to share projects with their entire social network at once. Soon, platforms designed to raise money became commonplace, and nonprofits began to experiment with crowdfunding. 


In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, and Google’s Android followed in 2008. These smartphones were not the first mobile phones to connect to the Internet, but they ushered in a new era of usability and connectivity. 

Suddenly, it was possible to donate to a charity online from anywhere, not just your home computer. Nonprofits and crowdfunding had to adapt again to make giving possible via smartphone and text message.

So Why Does Fundraising History Matter?

At this point, you may be thinking, “Neat. I know when the first telethon happened. Thanks. BUT HOW DOES THIS IMPACT MY FUNDRAISING NOW?” 

I’m so glad you asked. 

Fundraising is diverse. When something works, we keep it until it doesn’t. (Okay, let’s be real: Sometimes we keep it after it doesn’t, and that’s something we need to work on in the nonprofit sector). 

The Salvation Army fundraises online, and puts red kettles on street corners, much as they did in the 1890s, to the tune of $149.6 million in 2016. Most organizations send fundraising letters like Bishop Lawrence and post on Facebook. You might find something in history that works for you now.

More importantly, it’s vital to see what is universal in fundraising. Whenever we experience a big technological shift, it can feel intimidating. It’s like your whole job just changed right under you. But the thing that unites fundraisers from 1900 to right now, is connecting communities to causes.

At CauseVox, we’re part of the technological shift to digital giving. Our fundraising platform provides a way for nonprofits to connect their communities to their causes, with less complexity and more results. We help nonprofits raise money with less wasted effort and more time for building relationships. 

People give because of storytelling, because they want to make a difference, and because they care about other people. Our job is to help people give. CauseVox makes it easy for your donors and simpler for you. 

As a profession, fundraising is quite young. We’ve made tremendous progress in organization, professionalism, and technology in the last 120 years of fundraising history. 

As we move forward, there’s no doubt that we’ll make new discoveries, try new techniques, and develop new technologies. The top fundraising techniques today are bound to become fundraising history.

Still, the more things change, the more some good things will stay the same: people, caring, and generosity.

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