From the Editors

Introducing HistPhil: A New Blog on the History of Philanthropy

Modern philanthropy has long had an ambivalent relationship with its own history. On the one hand, every decade or so has brought tidings of a New Philanthropy, or sometimes even of a New, New Philanthropy, a designation that promotes a virtuous discontinuity with the giving that had marked the benighted old days. Centuries ago, such claims were essential to philanthropy’s self-definition as its partisans distinguished it from the traditional ethic of charity, which, its critics charged, had brought the hordes of beggars that pooled around monasteries, and not much else. We can hear the echoes of that clash between new and old modes of giving in the prospectus of strategic philanthropy, which has propelled itself forward with insinuations about the lack of quantifiable rigor and grappling with impact that impaired funders of the previous era. Through the ages, from philanthropy’s origins to its current moment, its bold, millennial ambitions demanded a forward-looking orientation, with only a passing and most often disapproving look backwards.

On the other hand, the backwards glance can’t be too cursory. After all, these claims to novelty require at least some inkling about how things were done before in order to be able to repudiate, and not just rebrand, the practice. (To say nothing of the possibility that the past might provide a storehouse of models that might be emulated). And so the irony is that philanthropy’s mission begs for the insights of historical inquiry—even if it does not always have the inclination to listen. With this blog, we hope to do our part to cultivate and promote those insights. With an audience of both scholars and practitioners of philanthropy in mind, we hope to show that the past can inform the present—and shape the future—of giving.

In at least two respects, the current moment has amplified philanthropy’s tendency to overlook that past, and thus makes the work of this blog especially timely. First is the general ascendance over the last few decades of modes of thinking about philanthropy chiefly informed by the disciplines of management and business theory and their social science allies. History didn’t have much of a place in the kingdom of the quants—except for the occasional case study.

Second, the rise of the cult of the social entrepreneur has put an even higher premium on the pursuit of transformative change, which all too often has fed a disregard—and even at times a contempt—for the careful, deliberate study of that change. “Don’t study history, make history,” instructed “Invisible Children,” the now dissolved-advocacy organization. Even if they wouldn’t have posed the matter so starkly, many social entrepreneurs, in their failure to cultivate and make use of the history of their own endeavors, seemed to affirm that dictum.

Yet there are also reasons to believe that more and more men and women in the field of philanthropy are coming to recognize the compatibility of these two vocations—the studying of history and the making of history. Not only have we recently witnessed a number of major works of scholarship in the field of the history of philanthropy—from Olivier Zunz, David Hammack and Helmut Anheier, Alice O’Connor, and others. But funders themselves also seem to be paying more attention. The Ford Foundation, for instance, has recently begun working with the Rockefeller Archive Center on a project that would use the foundation’s archival record lodged at the RAC to help inform its current programs. One new major foundation, Good Ventures, has teamed up with the nonprofit GiveWell to fund a program on the history of philanthropy (to which one of us has served as a consultant). And we can even see a renewed interest in the nature of philanthropic legacy with the increased attraction of the spend-down model. In all these endeavors, historical inquiry doesn’t push aside the other quantitatively-oriented models of understanding the working of philanthropy. But it certainly can serve as a supplement, a complement, and at times, a challenge to their central assumptions and conclusions.

It is in that spirit that we present the History of Philanthropy blog,

With it, we hope to achieve four main objectives:

The first is highlighting new (and even old) work on the history of philanthropy both by academics and non-academics. This work could take the philanthropic past as its explicit subject, or it could touch on it as a digression in discussing philanthropy in the present. It could be the product of historians who take philanthropy as their primary area of research or of scholars who define themselves as only peripherally engaged in the field. We are interested in it all; please email us at And so if you’d like to write on your in-progress or finished work, please let us know. For those of you who don’t think of yourselves primarily as historians of philanthropy but find your work intersecting in significant ways with philanthropy and nonprofits, please also reach out.

The second is using the past to address contemporary issues in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. We would love to get practitioners, scholars, and anyone else so inclined to engage with contemporary questions in the field through a historical lens. Are there initiatives from the past that could help inform today’s leaders of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, either as inspiring models or as cautionary tales? Are there preoccupations of past decades that could instruct us in the present moment? Are there forgotten figures who should be remembered? How else might past practice help contemporary philanthropy define social problems, select grantees, coordinate with other groups and organizations within and beyond the sector, and evaluate impact?

The third is building bridges between the practitioner and scholarly communities. We think that historical insight and a dialogue on this history will allow scholars and practitioners alike to dig into their respective knowledge bases and share notes. Our hope is that such engagement with the past, present, and future of the philanthropic sector will inform not only scholars in their analyses of the sector, but also practitioners in their work. Hopefully, it will encourage both groups to be more thoughtful about the sector and about its role in society. We are eager to hear about the ways in which practitioners and historians are currently working together, as well as about ways in which they might do so in the future.

The fourth is building the field. We’d like to establish a virtual community of individuals interested in the history of philanthropy, a research area that up until now has largely been diffused through other disciplines and organizations. With this community in mind, the blog’s three editors will keep track of events, articles, and books of interest. For example, we will mine both university press announcements for forthcoming books on philanthropy and the national conference programs of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the International Society for Third Sector Research, and the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, for relevant panels. We will keep our readers abreast of new articles in these professional organizations’ journals; in trade publications such as The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Stanford Social Innovation Review; and, in the popular press. We will post these announcements and blurbs on the blog, and also via our Twitter handle (@HistPhil). Please do give us a head’s up if you’d like us to feature any particular piece of work or event.

In order to strengthen our virtual community, we also have decided to structure the blog around certain themes. We will start off with a discussion on the state of the field. Fellow HistPhil co-founder Stan Katz asks how a historical perspective can inform our understanding of the Clinton Foundation; David Hammack offers his thoughts on the various waves of scholarship over the last two centuries that have engaged the topics of the philanthropic sector and civil society; in a Q&A, Olivier Zunz relates his experience writing his major monograph on the history of American philanthropy, and considers the directions the field might go in the years to come; Abigail Green and Amanda Moniz discuss the question of present-ism and its relation to the historiography of humanitarianism; and more. We then will progress to other topics, such as “philanthropy and democracy,” “philanthropy and education,” “the African American experience and philanthropy,” and “philanthropy and the environment.” Contributors for these weeks include Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer, political theorist Emma Saunders-Hastings, and historians Karen Ferguson and Leah Gordon.

The purpose of this theme-based structure is to encourage relatively concentrated conversations on particular topics among the blog’s contributors and readers. That said, we will simultaneously post original content on timely topics and provide announcements and blurbs beyond these themes. We will be soliciting contributions for our various fields, but if you have a contribution you’d like to make that doesn’t seem to fit into one, please do email us and let us know.

Please join us in celebrating the launch of HistPhil. Let’s make this virtual community a vibrant one!

-Benjamin Soskis and Maribel Morey

Along with Stanley N. Katz, Benjamin Soskis and Maribel Morey are co-founders of HistPhil. Ben is a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University and a consultant for the Open Philanthropy Project, which is funded jointly by Good Ventures and Give Well, and which has supported his work on this blog. Maribel is an Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University. 


6 thoughts on “Introducing HistPhil: A New Blog on the History of Philanthropy

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