Philanthropy and Historical Research

Q&A with Historian Olivier Zunz

Editors’ Note: In our introduction to the blog, we said 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’s Stan Katz launched this dialogue last 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. Later in the week, HistPhil’s Maribel Morey turned her attention to the history profession and outlined the importance of increasing the visibility of philanthropy among U.S. historians. Today, we continue with this general discussion of the field. The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between Olivier Zunz, Commonwealth Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and HistPhil’s Benjamin Soskis from May 2015. The author of several books on business and social history, in 2012 Zunz published Philanthropy in America: A History, the first major survey of American philanthropic history in more than three decades. Zunz discusses his book, Tocqueville, Bill Gates, and more, below.

BJS: One of the greatest challenges in writing an overview of the history of American philanthropy would seem to be defining the term itself. How did you think about what philanthropy means, and what you would include and exclude, in your survey? How do you think these decisions shaped your work? And how do you think they might shape the field of the history of philanthropy more generally?

Zunz: I did not want to start with very strict definitions of what is philanthropy exactly because I was very aware that the word is used in many different contexts. I am a student of Tocqueville and having thought about the many different ways that he uses the word ‘equality’ and the many different ways he uses the word ‘liberty’ I felt that, very early on, what was most important for me was to capture a process of giving in American history rather than something we could clearly define as ‘philanthropy.’ I am in general agreement with the traditional distinction people have made between philanthropy and charity, with charity being more often used for various forms of almsgiving and temporary help and philanthropy more often used, at least in American history, for long-term goals, searching for root causes. This definition makes sense and to the extent that I respected one [definition], I respected that one. But I was more conscious of the magnitude of giving in the American economy and then of the need to think of philanthropy as a part of the capitalist economy, of giving as being a major component of what we call the nonprofit sector—of giving in a particular economic context. And I also wanted to think of giving as a politically involved proposition, if not explicitly at least implicitly. It was important to me to try to describe an ongoing process of giving that had political and economic consequences rather than to start with a narrow definition and say this is what we’re studying. I took the less obvious path to clarity, but eventually I thought that it would yield a greater understanding of the process.

BJS:  How did you decide to write this book in the first place?

Zunz:  In the 1990s, I wrote a short book called Why the American Century? I argued that what made the 20th century American was not so much the collapse of Europe—which certainly made a big difference because Europeans were very good at killing one another. But it was also the creation in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century of a science-based economy and a consumer economy based on science. The whole reorganization of knowledge was key to the rise of the country to world power. And in the process of making this argument, I really began to think hard about the creation of the graduate school, and the extension of the research university. This is when I began thinking seriously about philanthropy because I realized how much philanthropy was part of that, of the funding of the search for new knowledge. It was long before there was an NIH or a NSF, or any of the post-WWII creations. Research was very largely based on private funding. And so that’s really what attracted my attention. And then I realized that in looking at this one side of philanthropy, I was looking only at a small part of it and there was a lot more to uncover. So I felt from the very beginning that I was exploring something very big, that for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, though they are clearer than they were before, American historians have neglected. In other words, I didn’t start with very clear definitions but with an idea that there was a process of giving that was very critical for big things that made America matter in the world. I had this sense that this process was huge and that much of it came from a philanthropic redistribution of resources. That’s what excited my curiosity. I came into this field clearly as an outsider. I had never really worked on the history of philanthropy before. I had done urban history, social history, business history, intellectual history. I had done a little work as a volunteer and as a small fundraiser for various groups, so I had a little bit of an experience as somebody involved with civil society—on a personal basis, not on a professional basis. Although active in some professional networks, I had never been part of a group working on the history of philanthropy. I got into the field only because it was a big part of American history that was missing from the general narrative.

BJS: And why was it missing? Why this gap?

Zunz: I didn’t write a historiographical chapter in my book because it was big enough as it was. But I’ve been thinking about the issue in the context of workshops we had at Stanford over the last two years. [Outcome will be a book edited by Lucy Bernholz, Chiara Cordelli, and Rob Reich forthcoming at the University of Chicago Press] For that book I have written an essay called “Why is the history of philanthropy not a part of American history?”

I can say briefly a couple of things I develop in this essay. First, it was not always the case that philanthropy was not part of the general narrative of American history. If you look at both Progressive era history and consensus history; that is, if you look at Charles Beard and Mary Beard’s History of American Civilization, philanthropy plays a big part of it. If you look at 1950s consensus historians like [Daniel] Boorstin, you’ll find in The Americans, especially in the third volume, large sections devoted to philanthropy. And their views are remarkably similar. What interested me is how the topic disappeared.  I looked for specific reasons. I think beginning in the 60s and the 70s, there was a revolution in business history. To the extent that philanthropy is a big part of the economy and you can really compare the foundation to a corporation, there is really no reason why business history abandoned philanthropy. But when the new business history, the Chandler-ian business history took over, they consciously buried the whole discussion of the robber barons and their philanthropy. They wrote narrowly about the history of management. What they did was very important because it gave business history a whole new dimension. They used business history to understand the large organizational synthesis of the 20th century, but the non-profit activities of business disappeared from their discourse altogether. By fighting against the “Robber Barons” interpretation of business history, by getting out of the good guys/bad guys dichotomy—they neglected the role of philanthropy in the very organizational synthesis they otherwise examined.

So you can have hundreds of pages of how Carnegie reformed management—and we never hear about Carnegie’s philanthropy. In some ways, the Chandler-ian revolution was a great moment in American history, and in all of the textbooks, you’ll find a good understanding of how this all happened, the transformation of business in the 20th century. But philanthropy disappeared from the picture.

So that’s one reason. There’s another similar kind of unfortunate disappearance of philanthropy in the understanding of American action abroad, international history. And what is remarkable here is that the two historians who I think did the most innovative work in the 1960s and 1970s in international history were part of the same history department at Wisconsin—I’m thinking of William Appleman Williams and Merle Curti. Now Merle Curti’s book, American Philanthropy Abroad, is a very important book. It certainly inspired me in thinking about American actions abroad, and early manifestations of the humanitarian movement, and the role that American philanthropy played in the Pax Americana. But the entire field of diplomatic history followed William Appleman Williams instead of Merle Curti, and only talked about tools of economic domination. It’s not that there was an ideological divide between Williams and Curti. Curti was a very progressive figure and with all the progressive credentials. He was ideological quite close to Williams though he was not a Marxist. But Williams’ influence was so great that Curti’s book appeared to be naïve, not really realizing what was really going on. And therefore, you look at the diplomatic history that was written in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and you see no trace of philanthropy anywhere. Just a couple of lines here or there.

In the history of public policy, with the whole movement to discuss the growth of the state in the last 30 years, they forgot that James Madison talked about the “compound republic.” They look at the Great Society from the perspective of the state and they don’t see the other side of it, that the Great Society doesn’t work without an active investment in civil society. That is actually beginning to change because historians who write the history of the humanitarian movement are going to make that connection, whether they want it or not.  I develop this in the essay I wrote for the Stanford workshops.

BJS:  What do you see as the main lacunae in the historiography of American philanthropy? Where would you point an enterprising young graduate student who wanted to do research in American philanthropic history?

Zunz: I would pose the question differently. I want all of the subfields of American history to look at philanthropy.

One of the things I advised one of our graduate students who is working on the Cold War to do was to go to the Carnegie Archives. My sense is this completely opened up avenues for her on angles not developed in the literature at her disposal. We are going to see more of this, hopefully. But it’s very hard to broaden the horizon of professional networks devoted to specific topics, to make them realize that philanthropic initiatives have made a difference. I think the people in these various fields need to open up and look at the contributions of civil society and the nonprofit sector to their fields, in policy history, in international history.  The people working in the field of the history of philanthropy also have to push, to make the connection.

BJS: Writing about philanthropy, as I’ve noted in a recent piece for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, requires walking a delicate balance between boosterism and muckraking, between honoring a tradition of American exceptionalism in which philanthropy plays a significant role, and participating in a counter-tradition that regards much of philanthropy with suspicion. How did you walk this line as a scholar? Is it even possible to do so?

Zunz:  Philanthropy, giving money for the common good, is rarely a pure act of selflessness. If you look at all the muckraking that’s gone on, you always question the motive of donors. In our capitalist system, where we have big money philanthropy, we always question the motives.  Can we still consider that philanthropy contributes to democracy if motives are mixed?  How legitimate is giving? How democratic?  Is the tax exemption justified if some donors benefit from their gifts as much as recipients? In thinking about framing my book, I thought hard about this issue of legitimacy. If you allow me to go back to Tocqueville for a second—I think Tocqueville was a genius not to be too hung up on virtue but to realize that human weakness can also generate the common good—this is one of his most brilliant moves. As I tried to assess the overall impact of big money philanthropy I knew that Tocqueville was right about human nature, and I came to appreciate the large outcome of the philanthropic enterprise. The philanthropic record compares well with public forms of policymaking where impulses and process are also far from perfect.

BJS: One of the most important contributions Philanthropy in America made to that field was its incorporation of mass giving into a narrative of the development of philanthropy. Can you talk a bit about that decision? How does including mass giving into your narrative change the way the reader understands the broader history of philanthropy in the United States? Why has mass giving not received the same sort of attention as big philanthropy?

Zunz: Philanthropy in American history is not simply a matter of the rich and privileged.  Numbers give it legitimacy. I was intrigued by the chronological coincidence between big modern philanthropy and mass philanthropy on some major issues, especially at the time of the First World War. I realized that the public health movement had always relied on both big and small donations, with the fight against tuberculosis and other aspects of the public health movement in the Progressive era. I could find mobilization from the grass-roots overlapping with philanthropic programs originating from large donors like the Rockefellers. Coming as I did from years of work in social history, I was familiar with budget studies of working class families; I knew when modest Americans started putting money aside for the Red Cross, for example. It dawned on me that this mass philanthropy was really overlapping chronologically, and also in terms of the purpose of the gift, with big modern philanthropy. The same reasoning goes for middle-class giving.  In the education field, it was not mass philanthropy but middle-class giving that overlaps with big giving, with donations to the alma mater from alumni groups, growing very big.

If you start thinking about how many people participate in this process of giving, then you don’t have an issue of legitimacy anymore. That if such a large part of the population, and an increasingly large one, contributes, then it is a legitimate activity and it does contribute to democracy. That was my thinking.

I had other reasons why I thought of this. I’ve often participated in fundraising activities for the university and for various organizations, and I’ve seen firsthand how we always try every avenue: some big donors, some modest donors, and all toward the same goal. Historians cannot let the tax code decide what category they use to understand social processes. This is basically what has happened in the field of philanthropy. Instead we need to realize that all of the important social movements have been supported by a combination of big money giving and mass giving. It’s true even of the more conservative movements, not just the civil rights movement collecting from black churches. If you look at the budget of the Heritage Foundation, the $50 check supported the organization. Forty percent of the budget of the Heritage Foundation at some point came from mass giving.

What you have here from the standpoint from the working population as a whole, is a very interesting shift in the Progressive era from thrift to giving, from savings to giving. This is a process that is not very well understood. I’ve participated in some discussion groups in the history of thrift where I’ve made that point, but it’s still pretty much a field that needs to be explored: the idea that pretty quickly in the economy, especially with inflation, saving doesn’t really help very much. But investing in the collective good, that’s a different story. Giving as an alternative to thrift became a significant part of American life.

The important historical process is the convergence of goals between big-money and mass philanthropy. You look at the women’s movement, you look at the civil rights movement, you look at conservative agendas of different kinds, and you see this convergence. So basically there’s no secret to what I did. I just did what a historian should do, which is to follow the evidence. If you stick to the preexisting categories, you miss the process.

BJS: You made the decision to take your history up to the 21st century, with a discussion of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in your final chapter. What are the challenges of including contemporary philanthropy in an account of the historical development of the sector?

Zunz: There is a real issue with how we engage the present. Most of us historians grapple with this problem.  You have to face it with your blog; my book on philanthropy is the only one of my books I took to the present. But I debate this every year when I give the final lecture of my US history survey.  I want students to understand how important history is.  I avoid some themes and stress others. This is always an awkward choice. I like history sometimes because I can afford to be irrelevant so I can be intelligent! As a historian, I like discussions free from immediate implications, as opposed to having an impact on policy, which we may or may not have anyway.

Now to your question re Gates.  The obvious reason why I went to the Gates Foundation is of course its size and significance. It seemed to me that you couldn’t write a book about philanthropy without going to them somehow, to take the book to the present and not stop artificially in the 1990s. But the main reason I went to them, for me, was the connection between Carnegie and Gates. I wanted to do more with it than I did and I have a regret about this. I think Gates is Carnegie without social Darwinism. Because, of course, Carnegie was social Darwinist through and through—Spencer was his hero. And I think there is no trace of social Darwinism in Gates. I became convinced of this in looking at the anti-AIDS campaign in India.

I was hoping to go to India for several months, study this on the ground, and end the book with a more fully documented case study of the fight against AIDS in India. I tried to get it funded but I failed, and I decided that, well, I worked on this book for twelve years, I’m not going to keep postponing it for another two or three years till I get this off the ground, so I can write another twenty pages. So I gave up. And I describe this from secondary sources.

But my idea was try to illustrate the sense that, when you make big money, it is not really your money. And that’s Carnegie idea. It’s the Carnegie idea that I respect most. That when you make big money, at some point it has to go back to the people who helped to make it. And my sense is that this is what Gates did. And so I wanted to establish that connection. For the reasons I just explained, I didn’t quite do it as I had envisioned it. But at some point I had to finish this book.

The Gates Foundation is huge. In terms of the size of the organization, you could go chronologically from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Ford, and then Gates. The Ford Foundation started as a tax dodge and became a real foundation for completely different reasons. Carnegie and the Gates had fairly similar original motivations. I never had the chance to discuss this with Bill and Melinda Gates but I have a feeling that they saw the book!


Olivier Zunz is Commonwealth Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Changing Face of Inequality, 1982, Making America Corporate, 1990, Why the American Century?, 1998, and Philanthropy in America: A History, 2012. He is also the editor of Reliving the Past, 1985, The Landscape of Modernity, 1992, and Social Contracts under Stress, 2002. His work on Alexis de Tocqueville includes editing The Tocqueville Reader, 2002, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 2004, and Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America, 2010.

One thought on “Q&A with Historian Olivier Zunz

  1. Pingback: Alexis de Tocqueville on Associations and Philanthropy | HistPhil

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