Philanthropic organizations are also known as charitable organizations, nonprofit organizations, endowments, and nongovernmental organizations. The latter are sometimes abbreviated as NGOs. Whereas most early charitable organizations in the United States were small and localized, starting in the late 1800s, individuals such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who had amassed great fortunes established foundations supported by parts of their fortunes to get involved in charitable activities. These foundations and other philanthropic organizations have become involved in the areas of education, social policy, religion, international affairs, health, scientific research, and environmentalism.
Philanthropy and its institutions in the United States grew out of the tradition of charity which has long been a part of human nature and society. One of the earliest written records reflecting this aspect of society is found with the Middle Eastern "Code of Hammurabai" from 2000 BC. A part of the surviving text of this ancient set of laws urges that widows, orphans, and the poor be looked after by the society. The great Jewish religious leader Moses established the practice of the "tithe." In this practice, persons would give one-tenth of their harvest to support the temples, rabbis, and activities of the Jewish religious system. The "tithe," or ten percent, is still used by some religions and religious individuals as a guide for a yearly charitable donation to a religion. Plato and the Egyptian King Ptolemy I are other notable historical figures performing charitable acts within the philanthropic tradition of society. Plato was an Athenian aristocrat who gave land to his followers so they could maintain the Academy he started after his death. After founding the library at the Egyptian city of Alexandria which became renowned throughout the ancient world, Ptolemy I established an endowment to insure its survival into the future.
Philanthropy is a practice not only in Western society. In ancient Chinese society, Confucius noted that being concerned about the well-being of others was also being concerned about one's own well-being. In the area of India, Buddha, the originator of Buddhism, included charity to the poor as a fundamental part of his religious outlook. He persuaded kings and princes of India to support missionaries in their religious work. All of the world's great religions--Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam as well as Christianity and Judaism--practice charity and encourage it among their followers.
In 1701 the English clergyman Thomas Bray founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts for the founding of churches and libraries in England's American colonies. In the United States, in 1790 Benjamin Franklin bequeathed money he had earned from his various endeavors to be lent to "young, married officers of good character." Franklin was also involved in the humanitarian and civic organizations of local volunteer fire companies, a hospital in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia public library, and the University of Pennsylvania.