Philanthropy and Historical Research

Philanthropic History and a Healthy Heterodoxy

Yesterday, the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Kevin Bolduc directed our attention to a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that he considered “ripe for historical insight.” HistPhil is never one to back away from a challenge—to say nothing of the fact that this was precisely the sort of conversation between historians, practitioners, and other assorted denizens of the sector we were hoping to encourage. So we took a look.

Bolduc was right; the article does raise a host of interesting questions about how historical knowledge can be of service to the field.

In the SSIR article, two managers from the Monitor Institute, Deloitte Consulting’s Social Impact Practice, Gabriel Kasper and Jess Ausinheiler, warn against the philanthropic sector’s tendency to endorse certain sclerotic orthodoxies (they open with a great story, new to me, about WWII-era British artillery’s use of archaic holdovers from the previous century). These they define as certain “deeply held beliefs about ‘how things are done’ that often go unstated and unquestioned.” And while the authors concede that a certain degree of field-wide standardization can be salutary, they insist that fealty to orthodoxy can also mask an unhealthy resistance to change.

From a historian’s perspective, this struck me as an interesting intervention precisely because it shines a light on the ambivalence with which the field tends to regard its own past. Religious orthodoxy derives from some transcendent revealed source; the secular orthodoxies that the authors are referring to (and more on their specific indictments in a second) instead gain legitimacy from inertia. They are done because that is the way things are done. In other words, they benefit from a sort of unthinking historical consciousness in the sector, and in some respects, the authors’ rejection of orthodoxy is of a piece with philanthropy’s grander regard for novelty that we discussed in our introductory essay, and general disregard for historical scrutiny.

But in another respect, by invoking the concept of orthodoxy, the authors call out for some good, old-fashioned historical inquiry, the sort that can demonstrate precisely how certain practices took shape in a field, and that can introduce a level of contingency into the narrative that is fatal to orthodoxies of all types. This sort of historical insight can make clear not only that certain things have not always been done this way, but that the reasons why they were done might have less to do with best practices and more to do with institutional biases, idiosyncratic personalities, and broader social or cultural forces.

Which brings me to the particular orthodoxies the authors of the SSIR piece cite: the belief that foundations should only operate in the nonprofit world, that foundations are meant to be permanent, and that philanthropy should stay out of public policy. First, it’s worth asking—as CEP president Phil Buchanan did in the comment section—whether these really do constitute field-wide orthodoxies. After all, plenty of funders in recent decades have aggressively intervened in public policy. But assuming that they are, labeling them orthodoxies glides over the complicated process by which such calcification occurs.

Take, for instance, the idea of perpetuity, which is now a primary research topic of my own. If one dives into the early twentieth century history of American philanthropy, what’s striking is how varied and plastic philanthropy’s attitudes toward timeframes of giving were. The leaders of the Rockefeller Foundation, for instance, held a range of attitudes about spending down the foundation’s funds, and whether it made sense for the institution to exist for more than a few decades’ time. In 1929, when Julius Rosenwald, the Sears Roebuck magnate and leading philanthropist, wrote his famous essays for the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic attacking perpetual endowments in philanthropy and calling for the field to embrace limited life foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation’s president, George Vincent, sent him a commendatory letter. The question of what constituted the proper timeframe of a foundation’s lifespan was an excitingly unsettled one back then.

Of course, not many fellow funders followed Rosenwald’s call—although some did. And I do think that the authors are right to conclude that by the end of the century, perpetuity had become something like the default setting in the field. And one important question that I am now pursuing in my research is why this occurred (the short answer is that it had much to do with a sector-wide circling of the wagons after suggestions of government-imposed timeframes emerged during the 1969 reforms, as well as with the growing influence of external investment managers).

That earlier history is still living; contemporary funders who are considering limited-life foundations almost always re-discover Rosenwald along the way. But pointing out alternative precedents and pathways is only a start to challenging orthodoxy. Sketching out a genealogy of the practice of philanthropy is a more complicated endeavor and involves understanding the reasons why certain practices flourished while others faltered. Achieving this kind of understanding of philanthropy’s past is crucial to encouraging the type of healthy heterodoxy that can fuel the field and to which this blog is devoted.

-Benjamin Soskis

A co-founder of HistPhil, Benjamin Soskis is a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University, a frequent contributor to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a consultant for the Open Philanthropy Project, which is funded jointly by Good Ventures and GiveWell, and which has supported his work on this blog.

3 thoughts on “Philanthropic History and a Healthy Heterodoxy

  1. Pingback: Waves of Historical Interest in Philanthropy and Civil Society | HistPhil

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

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

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