If you have ever played the game of Monopoly, you will remember the concept of the community chest. These were organizations, actually charitable trusts, that were created in the early 1900s to consolidate the charitable contributions of local groups and businesses. This concept quickly grew and by 1948 there were over 1000 of them. There are few with that name still around, but for the most part the Community Chest movement got a name change in the early 1960’s. We now know them by the name, United Way.
Frances Wisebart was born in 1842 in Kentucky, a child to Jewish immigrants. She married the business partner of her brother, a man named Abraham Jacobs. The all decided to move to Colorado and settled into a small city called Central City. Frances, often called Aunt Frank, was known for her sense of humor. She would always have a big smile and would be joking around, teasing, and finding things to laugh at. I really do not know how she kept that sense of humor. From the moment they got into Colorado, their problems started. You see Central is just outside of Denver and from 1859 to 1889 this Western town would have a rapid population explosion. There are many small reasons and one really big one.
Initially people arrived in Denver as a starting point to settle into the mountains, the thousands of mining camps or many of the beautiful valleys up in the Rockies. People came for the same reason they do today, clean air and beautiful skies. Those were many reasons for the increase in population, but the big one was Tuberculosis. You think we have a homeless problem now, back in the 1880s, Denver was a mess. From 1880 to 1890, the number of people jumped by 100,000. Many of them were sick, out of work, and living in makeshift encampments. Denver probably had 30 – 40% of its people with TB by 1900. People flocked to Denver as it was the city on the edge of the plain, right before a giant pass through the Rockies. Fresh air and sunshine were considered good for people with the disease, so little did the Jacobs’ family know when they arrived in the area in 1863 what they would be signing up for.
The amount of people moving into the Denver area caused a lot of problems, and not just a massive health crisis. Over crowding and congestion led to all sorts of calamity. They had two stores involved in significant fire outbreaks in the 1860s and they lost one entirely in a Central City fire. They tried their hand at running a stage coach line, which completely collapsed and they lost most of their money. The family participating in local politics, one being a mayor, members of city council and the leader of the first local fire department in Denver. Tragedy was never far away, they lost one of their sons to an early death. You can still research newspapers from that time and find this family’s name all over the place. Lots of success, lots of political events, and whole lot of bad news.
Despite all of that Francis, or Aunt Frank dreamed of a better society. She was amazing at getting things done and bringing people together. After relocating to Denver, she became quite the public presence giving speeches and rallying all the charitable organizations in town. She wanted to see youngsters educated, better orphanages, facilities for the elderly population and a competent and responsibly ran hospital. All of these things seemed an incredible reach for the rural town of Denver, but she persisted and turned out to be quite the businesswoman, figuring out how to get things done practically.
She led fearlessly, and was often heard saying she felt that men wanted to do the right thing but needed a woman to lead the way first. So she did, she got many civic, religious and social groups to donate time and money to her causes. She actually accomplished most of what she wanted. She created several charitable organizations that helped fund a free kindergarten, the Denver Jewish Hospital and countless other efforts. However, the big thing would happen in 1887.
She decided to join forces with some Catholic and other religious leaders to create a Charitable Trust, like that of a Community Chest to combine the fundraising efforts of 23 organizations. That effort would lead to the creating of the United Way, and that is primarily the focus point of this type of charity to this day. She would be shell-shocked to know that her organization today raises well over 200M in annual contributions.
Fundraising and charitable giving in the United States remains quite high when compared to other countries. In fact, it is not even a close compare. The numbers remain staggering. People in the U.S. give. In fact foundation based or corporate based donations do not even compare to the individual contributions of people. Individuals account for 70% of the total, a staggering 310Billion dollars a year. Even in tough times, even with all the tough times last year, the population of the U.S. produced a 5% increase in charitable giving. The grand total being somewhere in the neighborhood of 450Billion, if you include all companies and organizations. However, what is interesting is that tax payer funded government welfare programs spend about 430Billion a year. So combined total, the American population is giving about 1Trillion dollars a year to people that are in need. Just so you realize, this 430Billion in Welfare DOES NOT include Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare or even Prisons (which do their fair share of helping people in distressing circumstances). Medicare for example spends almost 600Billion a year alone. If I were to include all forms of public assistance in my calculation, Americans are giving about 3 Trillion dollars a year to help those less fortunate than they. Put this into perspective. There are only 4 countries in the world that have a higher GDP then what the United States gives away each year in government, civic, religious, and charitable aid. The US, China, Japan, and Germany. All the rest of the countries in the world have less than 3Trillion in GDP. The American people themselves donate to charity more money then 167 of the 190 countries in the world even report as GDP.
Despite all the bad things that are said about the grotesque and ugly Americans, the reality is that we give away a staggering 20% of our GDP to those that are in need. Our safety net is larger then 150 countries in the world put together. This is a part of our culture that I hope that never goes away. I think we should trust the local charities more than we do. They are demonstrably more effective at distributing need than the government is (a topic for another day). That ethic, that culture if you will, of doing everything is what drove women like Aunt Frank to create community charities. The fact that we are such a giving nation stems from people like Francis Wisebart Jacobs, founder of the United Way. This is why she has been referred to frequently as the Mother of All Charities.