“Wealth is not to feed our egos but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves.” – Andrew Carnegie
When he retired in 1901, Andrew Carnegie was the richest person in the world. Today, Andrew Carnegie is remembered as one of America’s most famous philanthropists. Carnegie may have been one of the first business leaders to promote the idea that the rich have a duty, or moral obligation, to give back to society in some way.
Carnegie’s story reads like a template for the American dream. He was born in Scotland and lived there until his family moved to America in search of a better life. Once in America, he found employment at a cotton mill and then later at a telegraph company. With each job that he took, his pay increased. Carnegie endeavored to network with the business leaders he encountered in order to increase his opportunities in life. He also read a lot and was mostly self-educated. His strong work ethic was rewarded with increased responsibility, increased salary, and various business opportunities. By wisely investing his money, he increased his wealth over the years. Eventually, he became involved in the steel industry and made his fortune.
The Gospel of Wealth
Carnegie laid out his philanthropy philosophy in an 1889 article titled “The Gospel of Wealth.” He wrote the article partly in response to the wealth inequality he witnessed in America. During Carnegie’s time, wealth was traditionally passed down to family members. In some cases, it was given to the state for public causes.
Carnegie’s opinion was that many rich people wasted their wealth on extravagant living. He believed that wealthy individuals and families should instead live modestly. Then the rich could focus on administering their excess wealth in a way that benefited society as a whole. He furthered believed that excess fortune should pass to society upon death instead of strictly benefiting inheritors. Carnegie felt that philanthropy was not just a moral obligation but a way to ease societal tensions between the rich and poor.
Before he devoted himself entirely to philanthropy, Carnegie contributed money to constructing libraries. In fact, he helped establish nearly 3,000 libraries in his lifetime—a testament to his love of books and learning. In 1901, Carnegie gave the New York Public Library $5 million. Carnegie also created the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now the Carnegie-Mellon University), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In 1911, he founded the Carnegie Corporation “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding” (Source). The organization is still active today which makes it one of the oldest grantmaking foundations in America.
Carnegie strongly believed that money should be donated with a purpose and not just given away indiscriminately just to give it away. He felt that it was important to contribute money to projects that would have a significant impact on society. That’s why he favored giving money to established institutions like universities, libraries, and hospitals. Carnegie’s ideas changed the way that the wealthy thought about philanthropy throughout the world. Today, his words and actions continue to influence successful people, especially self-made men and women.