Crowdfunding’s Gruesome Origins

Crowdfunding is not new. It can be traced back 156 years to one of the darkest times in our nation’s history.

Today, small contributors can raise large sums of money for a particular purpose with ease thanks to the Internet. But the first crowdfunding project actually occurred in 1863…long before the world wide web.

It was then that crowds of ordinary people were asked to voluntarily contribute to a project of national importance: the medical care of soldiers on the battlefield and their transition back home.

During the American Civil War, military encampments were filthy, nasty and unsanitary. The personal hygiene of soldiers was abysmal, while dysentery and other communicable diseases ran rampant. Their families couldn’t afford to take care of them once they came home.

Little, if any, government funds were available to care for the wounded and the sick. It all went to supplying arms, ammunition, and food to the armies in the field.

That’s when volunteers Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge stepped in and launched what can be called the first crowdfunding campaign.

Mses. Livermore and Hoge decided to sponsor a large festival in Chicago. Letters (not e-mails and texts) were sent to towns throughout the Midwest and local aid societies across the region were visited face-to-face (not via Facebook.) Advertising the fair and acquiring donated items to be viewed and sold (healthcare’s first event auction!) was the objective.

The Chicago Sanitary Fair opened on October 27, 1863. For a modest admission, attendees could see items they would not see anywhere else—things like military battle flags, civil war relics, the newest farm equipment, home inventions like the sewing machine, and art.

Attendees could buy quilts, pianos, toys, and clothes. President Abraham Lincoln even provided a handwritten copy of his Emancipation Proclamation. It sold for $3,000!

The Chicago Sanitary Festival was a smashing success and raised four times the original fundraising goal. Its accomplishment ignited a flurry of increasingly profitable Sanitary Fairs in other parts of the country.

Great fundraisers are made, not born. From 1863 to 1865, American philanthropy flourished as the number of Americans who became fundraisers and donors reached record levels.

Written by Lee Mikell, Senior Consultant for the Winkler Group, a full-service fundraising firm specializing in capital campaigns and planning studies. Mr. Mikell has led more than 16 successful capital campaigns for hospitals and institutions of higher education. Follow Lee @LeeMikell4 or @winklergroup.

Unites States Sanitary Commission Records – 1861-1879
Civil War Women: Fundraisers and Fairs – Stephanie Grace Whitson
Sanitary Fairs: Civil War Fundraisers – Cindy Grigg
U.S. Sanitary Fair Pictures

Latest Resources & Events

Finding New Major Donors Blog Header

Finding New Major Donors in Three Simple Steps

March 17, 2023

When I started doing nonprofit development work, one of the things that always seemed daunting was major gift fundraising—finding donors who had the affinity and capacity to make a transformational gift to the organization.

Board Preparedness Worksheet Blog Header

Board Preparedness Worksheet: Is Your Board Ready for a Campaign?

February 28, 2023

Is your board ready for a capital campaign? Discover the metrics that best predict readiness and evaluate core competencies with this board preparedness worksheet.

Ready to launch a capital campaign?

What can we help you find?