Welcome to the web site of the Germantown Relief Society in Philadelphia, the nation’s very first charitable organization. The Germantown Relief Society is both historic and unique and, after almost 140 years of existence, it remains serious about its primary mission of aiding the needy.
In 1873, a number of Germantown citizens stepped forward to help those less fortunate than themselves. This was the time of the great Panic of 1873 when, just 8 years after the end of the Civil War, distress was widespread. Many people felt that the traditional governmental methods for aid to the poor were not working, that the “deserving poor” were not successfully helped and that the “undeserving poor” manipulated the system. Poor houses failed to alleviate the suffering of the multitudes affected by economic hard times. Influenced by a new philosophy of charitable giving in England, these Germantown gentlemen met on December 4, 1873, at the YMCA on Greene Street to create a program that would provide “necessaries of life” for those citizens of Germantown who needed help. In so doing, they entered a new world of social service. They called the program the Germantown Relief Society. It was the very first “charitable organization” in the United States, and it was soon copied by many others throughout the nation. In fact, its system was the basis for the founding of Family Services of Philadelphia about 10 years later.
The Society incorporated in 1892 with the stated purpose “to relieve the worthy and helpless poor of Germantown and vicinity by contributing to their aid money, clothing, provisions, medicine and other necessaries of life.” The corporation documents list some of the leading names of the German Township: Emlen, Gates, Garrett, Haines, Foulke, Taylor, Schuler, Shoemaker, Cope, Mason, and Spiegel, to name a few. It boasted a headquarters and a superintendent who oversaw the donation of relief supplies to families and individuals found to be in need. The Society rarely gave money. Rather it gave coal for heat, food for the hungry, and clothing and other basic items that allowed folks to get back on their feet and to help themselves. A core component to the organization’s work was home visits by volunteer ladies of the community to determine the feasibility of giving relief. Although hardly a professional cadre of workers, the ladies and the Society succeeded in making a dramatic difference in people’s lives.
Many years have passed since the founding of the Germantown Relief Society, and, along with the changing face of social services over time, many changes have taken place in the way the Society reaches out to help others. There is no longer a headquarters. There is no longer a superintendent to oversee direct donations. With the guidance of a board of directors whose make-up reflects the broad diversity of Germantown, GRS is now a charitable foundation that looks to other non-profit corporations to give direct services to those in the Germantown area who need them. Each year, the Society considers applications from non-profit corporations for modest-sized grants. Through these 501(C)3 corporations, the Society continues the work of its founders.