Philanthropy and Historical Research

Increasing the Visibility of Philanthropy among U.S. Historians

Editors’ Note: In “Introducing HistPhil,” we mentioned that the site will be structured around certain themes and that we would start off with a discussion on the state of the field. HistPhil co-founder Stan Katz launched this dialogue earlier this week by asking how a historical perspective can inform our understanding of the Clinton Foundation; providing an example of how this field is relevant to contemporary concerns in the sector. Today, fellow HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey turns her attention to the history profession and outlines the importance of increasing the visibility of philanthropy among U.S. historians. 

Like many historians of U.S. philanthropy, I came across the philanthropic sector by accident. I can remember this “aha” moment in graduate school when I realized that the philanthropic sector mattered for understanding societal-wide change in the United States. Up until then, I largely had thought of legal and political actors, along with private sector leaders and grassroots activists, as the major players shaping continuity and change in the United States. I already had decided to focus my dissertation on a key study of the civil rights movement, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944), and imagined pursuing how legal and political actors appropriated the book’s ideas in shaping and defining racial equality in the 1940s and 1950s.

Over conversations with Stanley N. Katz—a Princeton historian and dean of philanthropic history who also became a cherished dissertation adviser and now co-founder of HistPhil—I became interested in the funders of Myrdal’s study: the Carnegie Corporation. I had spent several months at the Corporation’s archives at Columbia University and quickly became fascinated by the role of funding and elite networks in the construction of authoritative knowledge in the social sciences in the United States, and by the relationship between this knowledge creation and national policymaking. During one of our meetings, Stan asked how I wanted to pursue the project, and quite honestly, the funders had captured my attention. Early twentieth-century staff members at the Corporation and their colleagues in the Rockefeller organizations worked behind a screen of wealth and subtle political influence. Plus, they worked transnationally. I wanted to learn more.

Once I became actively aware that Stan was an historian of U.S. philanthropy and that I too was interested in the field, I started reading works by fellow historians of philanthropy. It was interesting to see that my “aha” moment was not unique. Several historians before me, including Stan, had found themselves discovering the importance of the philanthropic sector. Even more, it seemed that historians of U.S. philanthropy repeatedly discovered a field with few people in it and found themselves needing to explain and re-explain to colleagues in the profession why the philanthropic sector had any consequence for understanding general trends in American history.

Far from being the sentiments of a by-gone era, this was a dynamic that rang true with my own experience as a junior scholar in the field. A few years ago, an older historian of philanthropy asked me which other younger scholars were working in the field. The only name that came immediately to mind was Columbia PhD Benjamin Soskis who had written a Bancroft-Prize-winning dissertation on “The Problem of Charity in Industrial America, 1873-1915.” And throughout the past years, I repeatedly have confronted fellow U.S. historians’ confusion when I have mentioned that I am working on the philanthropic sector: They just didn’t seem to have a clear understanding of what philanthropy was or the role it has played and continues to play in the United States.

I hope that historians of U.S. philanthropy and the broader community of U.S. historians will grow out of this particular dynamic: It will not only benefit those of us who are in the particular field but also those in the broader field of U.S. history. And, of course, a similar call for greater awareness of philanthropy could be made to historians of all geographic foci beyond the United States. However, that is a topic for another post particularly since the philanthropic sector has played (and continues to play) varying roles in different countries.

In a 1999 article in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Stan admitted that studying the field had not occurred to him before the mid-1970s, “because until then [he] was contentedly studying legal history and constitutional law.” And like myself decades later, Stan was brought into the field quite serendipitously. For him, it was a call from Humphrey Doermann, a friend who had become the executive director of a new foundation. Doermann had wanted to learn more about the history of his foundation; and though Stan could offer little on the topic, he went searching for relevant sources. Stan later admitted to Doermann that “very little of consequence had been written on foundations themselves or the milieu in which they worked.”

Far from singular, Stan’s statement has been repeated by other historians of philanthropy throughout the past five decades as they have discovered and rediscovered the field of philanthropy: They have found a field with few scholars in it.

In his 1957 article “The History of American Philanthropy as a Field of Research,” for example, historian Merle Curti pitched to fellow historians the value of studying philanthropy. Curti wrote: “The time has come to ask whether there are less obvious but possibly almost as important segments of our culture which have received less attention at the hands of social historians than their importance warrants. To be specific, is philanthropy, in all its ramifications, one of the these major culture segments?” Throughout the piece, Curti outlined potential research topics and their relevant archives in order to motivate history professors to encourage their graduate students to pursue this field of research. He went on to write American Philanthropy Abroad: A History (1963), which reviewers celebrated for its breadth of data on the history of American giving abroad during the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries. And just three years earlier, Robert Bremner published American Philanthropy, which traced American philanthropy and reform movements through three centuries.

Even with the publication of Curti’s and Bremner’s works, future U.S. historians still found it to be quite an empty field. In 1972, Waldemar A. Nielsen introduced The Big Foundations by writing: “Despite their material resources and multiple activities there has been comparatively little independent research on foundations in the United States.”

Today, historians of philanthropy continue to sense that they are discovering a rather empty field; and we, like our predecessors, also find ourselves in the position of having to clarify and re-clarify to fellow historians why the sector matters. Serving as an example of the kind of recurring introductions that historians of philanthropy need to provide to fellow historians is Katz and his collaborator Barry Karl’s much-celebrated 1981 Minerva piece, “The American Private Philanthropic Foundation and the Public Sphere 1890-1930.” Here, the two historians spent the first seven pages of their thirty-four-page article setting up what foundations were and why they mattered for understanding the changing role of the federal government during the first third of the twentieth century. More recently in 2012, British scholar Inderjeet Parmar dedicated the first chapter of his book on the history of the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations to a general discussion on the significance of philanthropic organizations in U.S. foreign policy.

Perhaps one reason that historians of philanthropy are discovering a field peopled with few researchers and then finding it necessary to provide in-depth introductions on philanthropy for fellow scholars is because philanthropy is a rather hidden and easily overlooked realm of American life, and so too its history. After all, philanthropy sits somewhere between the public and private sectors and its history somewhere between business and political history. Another reason is that philanthropy lacks the transparency of the private and public sectors. Last month in the New York Times’s Sunday Review, for example, Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan published a piece advocating in favor of creating a federal watchdog to oversee philanthropy and other nonprofits. The Council on Foundation’s rebuttal just a few days later illustrates some of the strong pushback against such calls for greater oversight in the sector. A third reason perhaps is that American news services do not cover philanthropy the way they do the latter two sectors. Maybe this is because American editors, journalists, readers, and viewers intuit that these other realms of American life are important and that they should be kept abreast of any updates in these sectors. As fellow HistPhil co-founder Ben Soskis explained earlier this spring in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, potential “readers can approach business or political news as consumers or as voters (or sports stories as fans), but they don’t have as simple or intelligible a framework with which to conceive of their connection to the nonprofit sector.” He continued, “they aren’t particularly well informed about nonprofit issues to start with.”

Against this cultural and social backdrop, I can see why U.S. historians discover a sparsely populated field in comparison to political and business history. I also can understand why, once they become interested in philanthropy, these historians find themselves needing to remind colleagues over and over again about the importance of the philanthropic sector. However, U.S. historians’ lack of attention to philanthropy is not only a recurring challenge to historians in the field, but a handicap for a community dedicated to understanding how and why social, cultural, political, and legal changes have happened the way they have in the country. For example, it would seem that if modern U.S. historians care to trace how and why public policy changes at the national to local levels have happened the way they have, they should care as much about the inner-workings of the Ford and Gates foundations as they do about the inner-tensions of governmental branches. After all, these and other philanthropic institutions have played their part in shaping public policies. And if U.S. historians want to track the ebbs and flows of wealth inequality in this country, they not only need to discuss private and public sector wages but also wealth concentration and distribution in and from the nonprofit sector.

Greater visibility of the history of philanthropy among U.S. historians will not only help this particular field grow, but help this broader community do its job better. As Merle Curti wrote in 1957: “Quite apart from any bearing a larger knowledge of the history of philanthropy may have on a clearer understanding of various problems currently associated with it, who can doubt that the character and dimensions of American civilization may be illuminated by sustained inquiries into American experience in giving?”

-Maribel Morey

Maribel Morey is a co-editor of HistPhil and Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University. She has a PhD in History from Princeton (where, as we now know, her interest in philanthropy developed) and a JD from NYU Law.


Robert H. Bremner, American Philanthropy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

_____________, From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 1956).

David Callahan, “Who Will Watch the Charities,” The New York Times (May 20, 2015).

Merle Curti, “The History of American Philanthropy as a Field of Research,” The American Historical Review 62 (Jan. 1957).

________, American Philanthropy Abroad (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963).

Barry D. Karl and Stanley N. Katz, “The American Private Philanthropic Organization and the Public Sphere, 1890-1930,” Minerva 19 (1981).

Stanley N. Katz, “Where Did the Serious Study of Philanthropy Come From, Anyway? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 28(1) (March 1999).

Waldemar A. Nielsen, The Big Foundations: A Twentieth Century Fund Study (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, & Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (NYC: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Benjamin Soskis, “Nonprofit Boosters or Muckrackers—Can’t the Press be Both?” Chronicle of Philanthropy (March 1, 2015).

Vikki Spruill, Steve Taylor, and Steven Woolf, “New Regulations for Philanthropy?” Letter to the Editor,” The New York Times (June 5, 2015).


3 thoughts on “Increasing the Visibility of Philanthropy among U.S. Historians

  1. Pingback: Q&A with Historian Olivier Zunz | HistPhil

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  3. Pingback: Part II: Debating the Basis of American Civil Society, Waves of Debate about Religion and Virtue | HistPhil

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