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December is by far the biggest month for charitable giving. But all year long, Americans raise billions of dollars with walkathons and charity balls and online fundraising appeals. Now a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington explores the ways Americans give and why, with a look at philanthropy going back centuries. NPR's Pam Fessler has this preview.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Remember a couple of years ago, when it seems like we were all one big happy family? Americans of every age and political stripe joined in a common pursuit...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Cheering).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Cheering).
FESSLER: ...Pouring buckets of ice water on each other's heads to raise money for ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. It turned out to be one of the most successful fundraising efforts in U.S. history. But it had a very modest beginning.
BONNIE LILIENFELD: A wonderful blue ice bucket, which, you know, just looks like any pail that you would wash your floor with.
FESSLER: Bonnie Lilienfeld of the National Museum of American History says the pail belonged to a New York woman, Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband has ALS. A relative challenged her to dump ice on her head to raise awareness about the disease and post it online. She did. And the rest is philanthropic history.
LILIENFELD: People just started dumping ice on their heads. You know, it seems like a kind of crazy thing. And at the time, you know, people wondered what it was really going to do. But in the end, I think they raised over $115 million.
FESSLER: And it became the latest symbol of Americans' creativity when it comes to giving. Lilienfeld says U.S. philanthropy comes in many shapes and sizes.
LILIENFELD: Like this wonderful 1764 silver plate that was given by Thomas Hancock to his church in Boston, Mass.
FESSLER: It's a beautiful communion dish inscribed with the church's name and also Hancock's.
So everybody would know he gave this plate.
LILIENFELD: Right, right.
FESSLER: Lilienfeld says people don't give just to help others but sometimes to help themselves - a kind of status symbol. Still, U.S. philanthropy has filled some important social needs, as in the 19th century, when industrialist Andrew Carnegie used his money to build libraries across the nation. He believed the rich had a responsibility to support the common good. But Lilienfeld says charity isn't just about those with money.
LILIENFELD: It's amazing what just a little bit can do.
FESSLER: She points to a small orange box, the kind trick-or-treaters used for years to collect spare change, raising more than $175 million for UNICEF. And, sometimes, it's not even about money. The exhibit includes a blood-donation kit.
LILIENFELD: That's really sort of the ultimate gift of really giving of yourself. So we included that story here to really try to get people to understand, sometimes, the smallest act really is an act of philanthropy.
FESSLER: She says many Americans prefer to do something rather than to write a check. There's a tool belt here that a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity used to build a house and a T-shirt from a charity race.
LILIENFELD: Let's see. We also have a...
FESSLER: Ah, Jerry Lewis.
LILIENFELD: ...Jerry Lewis telethon. Of course, you can't talk about giving without talking about Jerry Lewis.
FESSLER: Whose annual fundraiser for muscular dystrophy was a fixture of American life for more than 40 years. But not all giving was quite so benevolent. The exhibit includes a 1793 letter from a Maryland slaveholder granting one of his slaves her freedom, a distorted view of philanthropy indeed. Lilienfeld says, for the most part, giving in the U.S. has been aimed at improving life and seems to fill a need we have to take matters into our own hands.
LILIENFELD: It's this idea that we, you know, come together in a crisis. We come together to take care of each other. We come together to get things done.
FESSLER: Even if that means coming together under a bucket of ice. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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