Philanthropy and the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution has deep philanthropic ties that are summarized in its preamble, declaring the establishment of justice, the promotion of general welfare, and the securing of liberty. These are principles on which the philanthropic sector is founded.


The Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1787 and put into effect in 1789, is the document that records the U.S. system of fundamental laws and principles that prescribe the nature, functions, and limits of the government of the United States (American Heritage Dictionary).

Constitutional principles include the rule of law, separation of powers, representative government, checks and balances, individual rights, freedom of religion, federalism, and civilian military control (Center for Civic Education).

Philanthropy, which may be individual or collective action, includes voluntary efforts to promote human welfare and well being. The origin of the word philanthropy is Greek and means "love for mankind." Philanthropy is usually expressed by efforts to enhance the common good. The philanthropic sector includes nonprofit organizations with missions to improve the well being of humanity as well as personal acts of practical kindness or financial support of causes. Philanthropy comprises any effort to improve quality of life or relieve human suffering.

The common good may be defined as what is of the greatest benefit to all and community welfare. 

Historic Roots

Regulation and encouragement of charity had been anticipated by the earliest state constitutions (Clotfelter and Ehrlich 2001).  All charitable bodies, initially informal organizations acting through churches or as the responsibility of leading citizens, were seen as public services whose value to the state was acknowledged by exemption of the property of donors from taxation. If the service was needed by citizens, provision of it by private citizens with their own funds had value the state could afford to reward.

These values were carried forward into the new country’s national Constitution. Yet the Constitution’s implied emphasis on the authority of states and local communities to control education—the oldest of policy issues with which philanthropy deals—and social welfare makes the federal role a fragile one (Clotfelter and Ehrlich 2001).

The government of the United States of America under the Constitution became fully operative February 2, 1790, when the Supreme Court organized and held its first session (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration) (3).


Core Democratic Values are the fundamental beliefs and Constitutional principles of American society expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and other significant documents, speeches, and writings of the nation (Kurland and Lerner 1987).

Fundamental principles include the right to life, liberty, economic freedom, and pursuit of happiness. The purpose of government is to protect these rights, and it may not place unfair or unreasonable restraints on their exercise. In addition to basic rights, the fundamental principles uphold belief in the common good, justice, equality, religious freedom, diversity, truth, popular sovereignty and patriotism (Center for Civic Education).

The Constitution guarantees the rights and liberties of the people of the United States by making them part of the fundamental laws and principles of the United States government.  Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution affords Congress power to “lay and collect taxes” [ ] “for the common defense and general welfare of the United States”  (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration) (2).

All United States laws, executive actions, and judicial decisions must conform to the Constitution. Article VI, cl.2 of the Constitution states, “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding” (U.S. Constitution).

Under federal law, philanthropic gifts made to religious and nonprofit organizations for charitable purposes are exempt from taxation (Council on Foundations).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Although the United States Constitution does not specifically address philanthropy, philanthropic values are rooted in the core values and beliefs of the Founding Fathers who participated in drafting these fundamental principles of American government.

Philanthropy has strong roots in democratic principles of civic participation, religious tithing, mutual assistance, group approaches to problem solving, and American traditions of individual autonomy and limited government (ibid.).

The Constitution’s philanthropic ties are summarized in its preamble which reads: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration) (2).

Constitutional Amendment I, contained in The Bill of Rights, extends Constitutional protections to religious organizations, many of which also operate charities on behalf of the public and public welfare, by affirming that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (U.S. National Archives and Record Administration) (4).

Key Related Ideas

Hardships faced by early settlers to North America, where government was weak and far away, forced people to join together to govern themselves, help each other, and undertake community activities such as building schools and churches and fighting fires. Out of these experiences grew a tradition of citizen initiatives and individual efforts to promote the public welfare. Religious leaders also encouraged their members to give to the poor and to charitable works of churches (Council on Foundations).

Until a more defined system of tracking philanthropic organizations and donations became necessary for financial purposes, American philanthropic efforts were informal and not officially classified under early American law. Tax designations and codes now regulate exempt and non-exempt charitable giving and define organizations and foundations conducting philanthropic activity in the United States.

A foundation is an entity established as a nonprofit corporation or a charitable trust, with a principal purpose of making grants to unrelated organizations or institutions or to individuals for scientific, educational, cultural, religious, or other charitable purposes (Foundation Center). This broad definition encompasses two types of foundations. In private foundations, funds come from one source, whether an individual, a family, or a corporation. Public foundations normally receive assets from multiple sources, which may include private foundations, individuals, government agencies, and fees for service (Council on Foundations).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1799):  Franklin, as its oldest member at age 81, was called the “Sage of the Constitutional Convention.”  He achieved financial independence as a printer and publisher with his most successful literary venture the annual Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Franklin gained recognition for his philanthropy and the stimulus he provided by donating part of his wealth to provide and support civic causes including libraries, schools, and hospitals. He also pursued interests in science and politics serving multiple municipal colonial government roles. For fifteen years, Franklin resided in England where he became a celebrated spokesman for American rights, returning to Philadelphia in 1775 to become a distinguished member of the Continental Congress (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration) (1).
  • John Marshall (1755-1835):  Marshall, appointed by President John Adams as fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had a significant and lasting impact on the Court and the United States during his 34 years on the Court. He expressed the challenge in maintaining free government by noting, “We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding…intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs” (Dixon 1997) (Supreme Court of the United States).
  • George Washington (1732-1799):  Washington represented Virginia as the first and second Continental Congresses.  He served with distinction in the militia and, in 1775, was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Washington was unanimously chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention and as first President of the United States of America. He provided stability and authority to the emergent nation and gave substance to the Constitution, whose success was immeasurably influenced by his presence and dignity. As President, Washington appointed the six original Justices of the Supreme Court and before the end of his second term, appointed another four Justices (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration) (1).

 Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Center for Civic Education specializes in civic/citizenship education, law-related education, and international educational exchange programs for developing democracies. The Center administers curricular, teacher-training, and community-based programs focusing on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights; American political traditions and institutions at the federal, state, and local levels; constitutionalism; civic participation; and the rights and responsibilities of citizens (
  • The National Constitution Center (NCC) was established by the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 for the purpose of increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution, its history, and its contemporary relevance sponsors (
  • The Supreme Court Historical Society, conducts educational programs, supports historical research, publishes books, journals, and electronic materials, and collects antiques and artifacts related to the Supreme Court's history. The society’s mission is to increase public awareness of the United States Supreme Court contributions to our nation's constitutional heritage (

Related Web Sites

The First Web site, at, is a site of the United States government and includes extensive links to information specific to nonprofit organizations and operations.  Subjects include governmental agency specific nonprofit resources, fundraising and outreach, grants, loans and other assistance, laws and regulations, management and operations, online services, registration and licensing and tax information related to nonprofits.

The National Constitution Center (NCC) Web site, at, offers an Interactive Constitution section on its where users can search the constitution by keyword, topic or Supreme Court decision.
The Supreme Court Web site at,, as final arbiter of the law, is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law, and thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution.

The U.S. National Archives & Records Administration Web site, at, offers text and visual images of the original United States Constitution. The site also includes bibliographies of “The Founding Fathers,” key figures in early United States history who worked to draft the original U.S. Constitution including signatories to the document and non signers.


  • Center for Civic Education. Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education Executive Summary. 
  • Citizen’s Action Coalition. Constitution of the United States.  
  • Clotfelter, Charles T., Thomas Ehrlich, ed. Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America. The American Assembly, Columbia University. Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0253335213.
  • Council on Foundations. An Abbreviated History of the Philanthropic Tradition in the United States. 
  • Dixon, Richard. “John Marshall Biography”. (1997) From Revolution to Reconstruction and what happened afterward - an .HTML project. Department of AlfaInformatica, University of Groningen (The Netherlands). 
  • The Foundation Center. Frequently Asked Questions:  What is a foundation?   
  • Kurland, Philip B., and Ralph Lerner., eds. The Founders Constitution. Web edition. 1987. The University of Chicago. University of Chicago Press. A
  • Nonprofit Good Practice Guide.  Complete Glossary.  
  • Supreme Court of the United States. The Court and Constitutional Interpretation. Supreme Court Historical Society Booklet. 
  • Supreme Court of the United States. The Court as an Institution. Supreme Court Historical Society Booklet. 
  • U.S. National Archives and Record Administration. (1). America’s Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. 
  • U.S. National Archives and Record Administration. (2). Constitution of the United States. 
  • U.S. National Archives and Record Administration. (3). Constitution of the United States Questions and Answers excerpted from The Story of the Constitution by Sol Bloom, Washington, DC : National Archives and Record Administration, 1986, c1937. 
  • U.S. National Archives and Record Administration. (4).  The Bill of Rights. 

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.