Philanthropy and Historical Research

Waves of Historical Interest in Philanthropy and Civil Society

Editors’ Note: We continue with our discussion of the field with this two-part contribution by historian David C. Hammack. Today, we include Part One: “Waves of Historical Interest in Philanthropy and Civil Society.” Tomorrow, we will post Part Two: “Debating the Basis of American Civil Society, Waves of Debate about Religion and Virtue.” Earlier posts under this general dialogue on the field of philanthropic history includeStan Katz’s “The Clinton Foundation in Historical Perspective”; Maribel Morey’s “Increasing the Visibility of Philanthropy among U.S. Historians”; Ben Soskis’s Q&A with Olivier Zunz, author of Philanthropy in America: A History; and most recently, Soskis’s “Philanthropic History and a Healthy Heterodoxy.” 

The launching of a new site for the historical consideration of philanthropy and civil society calls for a note on earlier waves of historical attention to such matters.

Historical writing can always illuminate current debates.  History can show the need for action – to right a wrong or to protect a threatened value.  History can make a case for continuing a practice, for reforming it, or for abandoning it. History can also introduce better understanding into today’s discussions: it can challenge conventional assumptions, and can show that the meanings of key terms – such as “philanthropy” and “civil society” – have been multiple and changing.

Close examination also shows that historians who have written on philanthropy and civil society have themselves pursued divergent, and not infrequently competing, purposes.

Today, the word “philanthropy” most often means “very large gifts of money, generally for nonreligious charitable purposes.”  The Chronicle of Philanthropy has appropriated the term for the title of a trade paper aimed at professional fundraisers.  The Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University emphasizes broad meanings of the term, but pays particular attention to fundraising and maintains a prominent list of “million-dollar gifts.”  Controversy about “philanthropy” in the daily press focuses on the money, emphasizing large, attention-getting gifts and the implications of tax policy for the interests and aspirations of individual donors, the ambitions of fundraisers, and social and political equity in society at large.

But other meanings also attach to “philanthropy.”  At root, the term means “love of humanity.”  Of all the ways to express love, the making of large gifts of money is by no means the most praised.  Great gifts made with expectations of great returns in prestige, deference, or material advantage, often evoke skepticism. Selfless devotion to the helpless wins more consistent praise.  Real sacrifice of self for others sometimes earns sainthood, in secular as well as in religious terms. Large or small, monetary or personal, most gifts generate impact not as individual statements, but through their association with the gifts of others.

American historians have less often written about “civil society,” especially when they write about the history of the United States.  When historians do apply this term to the U.S., they use it loosely.  And many historians have written more broadly about participation in public life, and about the institutions and practices that have shaped public participation.

Historical writing about philanthropy has appeared in a series of overlapping waves.  One series of waves emphasizes big secular gifts.  A distinct, though parallel, series emphasizes public participation.

Historical Writing about Philanthropy as Big Secular Gifts, from Carnegie to the Present: Four Waves

From the influential secular-big-gifts-of-money perspective, Benjamin Franklin set a key precedent with his autobiographical narrative of endeavors to promote self-help.  As he tells it, his own history amounted to a rise from rags to great influence in colonial Philadelphia, and to sufficient wealth to live on the income generated by his enterprises and eventually to set up competing loan funds for young craftsmen in Philadelphia and Boston (see Yenawine, 2010).  But the first notable round of writing about philanthropy in the currently dominant sense is usually taken to be Andrew Carnegie’s call, in 1889, for large-scale giving to nonreligious, public purposes.  As he set about constructing the more than 2000 buildings that established the U.S. system of public libraries supported by local taxes, Carnegie celebrated the stories of earlier donors who built ladders intended to help the aspiring poor to rise: Peter Cooper of New York and Charles Pratt of Brooklyn, who had endowed free technical schools; Enoch Pratt of Baltimore, who had endowed a large library freely open to all regardless of race; Leland Stanford of California.  Like Carnegie, these donors contributed to existing social arrangements: they left it to others to teach basic reading, writing, and arithmetic; to understand how education and technical training could open opportunity; and to provide students with the shelter and sustenance that made study possible.

In responding to the problem of disposing of his vast wealth in a way that was morally defensible and effective, Carnegie could not rely on an unquestioned faith in the Protestant institutions that had previously organized much of American giving. Yet he felt compelled to respond to the critiques of millionaire greed and hypocrisy that rose after the Civil War.

These critiques took many forms.  In The Gilded Age, Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner used the word “philanthropist” only for people they exposed as frauds and grifters.   Prominent religious leaders and social reformers urged the rejection of “tainted money.” Just before World War I, Congress not only refused a federal charter for the Rockefeller Foundation but subjected Rockefeller to highly critical hearings.  Evangelicals complained that money from Carnegie – and from Rockefeller – seduced colleges away from Protestant denominations.

Critics and defenders of Gilded Age philanthropy were also contributing to the great debate about the character of civil society in the U.S.  Should civic organizations derive from the big gifts of a few – or from popular associations?  Should America’s wealthy mainly subsidize religious establishments that institutionalized Protestant fragmentation and Protestant-Catholic conflict, and that hardened divisions between North and South?  Or should rich donors seek to advance non-sectarian, secular, and scientific ideals?  Should they serve local or national interests?

Following Carnegie’s lead, Albert Shaw of the American Review of Reviews and many other journalists countered critiques of Gilded Age inequality with praise for millionaire donors to civic institutions and broadly to science and “progress.”

Wealthy donors continued to endow religious institutions, and to win praise for such gifts within their own communities.  New donors continued – from the late nineteenth century to the present – to create new foundations devoted to religious purposes, to expand faith-based colleges and hospitals, to underwrite the education and support of clergy and the religious studies and devotions of lay people.  Great new houses of worship continued to appear, from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Riverside Church, and Temple Emanu-el in New York and the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. to great Mormon churches in Utah and Arizona to the many Danforth chapels intended to serve students at many Midwestern and Southwestern state universities. But from the late nineteenth century the general press – and mainstream professional history – increasingly focused on big gifts for secular purposes.

The broad approaches defined by Gilded Age critics and defenders of big philanthropy persisted in a subsequent wave that continued into the Great Depression.  Modernizing historians did add new twists.  By the 1920s Arthur M. Schlesinger (the elder) was, with his numerous students, developing a new social history that emphasized contributions to civic virtue – contributions that embraced large gifts of money as well as sacrificial gifts of time and talent.  A little later journalist-turned historian Allan Nevins was leading his Columbia University graduate students in the production of biographies praising the philanthropy of wealthy “industrial statesmen” including Rockefeller.

These historians had much material to work with.  In the early decades of the century the distinctive group of donors associated with Carnegie, Rockefeller, several members of the Guggenheim family, Julius Rosenwald, Margaret Olivia Sage, and Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, played important roles in creating an extraordinary new set of American institutions.  These donors attracted chroniclers of the public library, the K-12 public school system voluntarily systematized on a national basis, effective public health departments, the research university, and the science-based medical school.  Before World War II only a few critics objected to what they saw as the uses of philanthropy and foundations for labor-control, conservative-political, conservative-cultural (Lindeman, 1936), or, as Ferdinand Lundberg insisted in 1937, for the dynastic purposes of conservative families.

Criticism of the abuse of philanthropic giving reappeared after World War II. With the competing responses of a number of historians, this launched a second wave of writing about big-gift philanthropy.

This time a critical perspective was no doubt spurred by the persistently high federal taxes of World War II and the early Cold War era, and by the general emphasis on sharing the responsibilities of citizenship characteristic of the period.  U.S. tax officials – and President Harry Truman – saw substantial evidence that some taxpayers used charitable tax exemptions illicitly to reduce their tax bills while doing nothing “philanthropic.”  Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and other politicians objected when entities that assumed the name (if often not the legal status) of “foundation” contributed to their political opponents.  Meanwhile defenders of the social and racial status quo complained that the efforts of a few philanthropies to encourage universal education and voting rights were not “charitable,” but “political” – or indeed “subversive.” Foundations, it was argued, used their “power and influence” to undermine capitalism and right government; Congress investigated some big foundations for “un-American activities.”

An extended body of historical writing countered with celebrations of the virtues of big-gift philanthropy.  Foundations themselves underwrote studies to show that “private   philanthropy” had much to do with “public needs” (as the Filer Commission wrote in 1975)  and with “liberty.”  Several large foundations published accounts to demonstrate the probity and value of their own work, including Russell Sage (1947), Julius Rosenwald (1949), Josiah Macy (1950), Rockefeller (1952), Children’s Fund of Michigan (1954), Kellogg (1956), the General Education Board (1962, 1964), the Chicago Community Trust (1962), Cleveland (1963), Guggenheim (1964), Twentieth Century Fund (1969).   The Rockefeller Foundation’s Warren Weaver laid out the broad case for foundation support for research, especially scientific research, in 1967.

Some influential academic research also seems clearly to have stemmed from concern to demonstrate the value of philanthropy.  The Ford and Russell Sage Foundations funded research by historians at Harvard – where W. K. Jordan (1959 and later) and David Owen (1964) published detailed studies of philanthropic efforts to relieve poverty and advance basic education in England, – and at the University of Wisconsin, where Merle Curti and his students examined philanthropic efforts to advance American aims abroad and at home (1963, 1964, 1965).

Amid persistent objections to high taxes, to the Civil Rights movement, to the expanding role of the federal government, and to money in elections, Congress decided to take action to reign in philanthropic foundations.   The Tax Reform Act of 1969 sharpened legal distinctions between endowed charities and free-standing foundations, and imposed tighter regulations and a tax on the latter.   In 1975, as the U.S. Treasury was finalizing rules to implement the 1969 Act, the (Filer) Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs assembled an extraordinary collection of facts and observations, drawing in part on the historical studies of the 1950s and 1960s.  Collectively, the second wave histories noted above may well have helped foundations preserve much of their autonomy as Congress drafted the 1969 Act, and as the Department of the Treasury defined regulations to enforce it.

An extended third wave of historical writing about philanthropy appeared as the 1969 Act’s implementation was under debate.  Some contributions to this wave reflected efforts to consolidate philanthropy’s position in American society, politics, and law: other contributions reflected efforts to impose additional controls.  In prominent publications of the mid-1970s, foundations leaders including Waldemar Nielsen, Merimon Cuninggim, and James Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky combined the perspectives, arguing that foundations must discipline themselves if they wished to prevent others from imposing control through government.

Several historians took up the challenge.  Daniel Kevles, Stanley Coben, and others wrote important historical accounts of philanthropic patronage of science; John Ettling followed with a dispassionate history of Rockefeller Philanthropy and Public Health.  Stanley N. Katz and Barry D. Karl then broadened the focus in a new series of sophisticated histories of big philanthropic gifts – and of some of the challenges such gifts pose for democracy.  In seminal articles they laid out problems for research; their students produced books on impressive philanthropic achievements in the arts and culture (Kathleen D. McCarthy, 1982) and in medical research and teaching (Steven Wheatley, 1988).  No doubt concern that new regulations and taxes would hamstring legitimate philanthropy also opened archives for detailed and comprehensive studies of the two biggest Carnegie funds by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (1983 and 1989).

The same concern encouraged funding for Kathleen McCarthy’s Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York, which has produced several historical works, including notable examinations of women’s philanthropic roles, even as it has introduced many international visitors to the study of American philanthropy.  Support also came available for Yale’s Program on Non-Profit Organizations (which provided a home for historical studies of philanthropy and inequality by Paul DiMaggio and Peter Dobkin Hall, as well as for highly influential work by John Simon, Henry Hansmann, and Bradford Gray), and for Harvard’s Hauser Center (which, during its brief life, channeled funds to work in historical sociology by Theda Skocpol, Morris Fiorina, and others).  Additional funds  came forward for a multi-year dissertation-writing grant program at the Social Science Research Council (whose awardees have already produced several books, including Bethany Moreton’s  study of Walton philanthropy, 2009), and for the still growing Center (now Lilly Family School) of Philanthropy at Indiana University, which has underwritten the Indiana University Press’s book series in the field.

A proliferating array of critical studies offered counterpoints to these narratives of philanthropic and foundation achievement in the decades after the passage of the 1969 Tax Reform Act.  Marvin Olasky (1992) and other self-proclaimed conservatives blamed liberal philanthropy and foundations for attacks on America’s Christian faith and self-reliance.  Randall Holcombe (2000) offered a somewhat extended version of the complaint that while wealthy donors had earned the right to give their money as they wished, their successors on foundation boards tended to be organization men or liberals who lacked comparable legitimacy.  Such works purported to use historical evidence, and though rigorous historians could easily show that the evidence was partial, incomplete, and unpersuasive, such critical complaints from the right won much attention.  By the 2000s, John Miller and others were offering well-documented celebrations of conservative philanthropic efforts.

Advocates for social change offered both critiques of what they saw as philanthropic failures, and celebrations of philanthropic work for their preferred causes.  As early as 1958 Louis R. Harlan had shown how philanthropically-funded reform of southern education had reinforced racial inequality.  From the 1980s John H. Stanfield, James Anderson, Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, and others, looked hard at the way big philanthropy had more often maintained than challenged the color line.  Internationally, Robert Arnove, Edward H. Berman, and others argued in the 1980s that American philanthropy underwrote “cultural imperialism” and racism.  In various ways Mary Anna Culleton Colwell, Peter Dobkin Hall, Sara Diamond, and Joan Roelofs emphasized the use of philanthropy to serve elite policy as well as social ambitions.  Alan Rabinowitz, Susan Ostrander, Olivier Zunz (2012), and Kathleen McCarthy (2005), made the same point in a positive way, celebrating the liberal and feminist philanthropic achievements.

Much of the writing both for and against the general value of foundations and philanthropy to the United States has continued to reflect the view that big gifts can make big, society-wide change – can create whole new classes of institutions, finance major innovations in science, and shape public policy.  But by the last years of the twentieth century it had long been clear that philanthropy could no longer play the extraordinary role in creating entire classes of institutions evident in the century’s first decades.  Overall, private giving had settled at about 2% of personal income.  The nonprofit organizations that philanthropy supported, formerly small and poor, had in many cases become large and rich.  Fueled by the sale of services to a more and more affluent public, even more than by a notable rise in government payments after the post-World War II growth of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and the Great Society introductions of Medicare, Medicaid, and increased federal support for higher education, nonprofit employment more than tripled from not more than 3% of the U.S. labor force in 1950 to about 10% in 2000.  In scale and resources, the largest universities and medical centers rivaled or surpassed the resources of philanthropy; collectively, medicine, science, and higher education dwarfed the foundations – and the wealth of almost all individual donors.

Yet philanthropists still want to make their mark.  And as always, elected officials eagerly seek to accomplish public purposes without raising taxes – by using streams of private funds, including charitable contributions as well as fees and charges.  One result has been a spate of books celebrating various forms of philanthropic leverage.  For at least a decade we have seen praise for “venture” or “entrepreneurial” philanthropy,” for “social entrepreneurship,” for “program-related investment” and “mission-related loans,” for matching grants, for earned income, for “theories of change” and measured outcomes. This movement has produced works of advocacy, a few of which emphasize what they take to be the typical ineffectiveness of past philanthropy.   It has also evoked expressions of skepticism and doubt.  Although these current enthusiasms unconsciously echo Ben Franklin and his many creative nineteenth-century followers, they have yet to produce a wave of substantial histories.   (For more support for the argument of the two preceding paragraphs, see Hammack and Anheier, 2013).

-David C. Hammack

David C. Hammack is Haydn Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University.  A former president of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, his books include Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader (1998), and a three volume series of books on foundations: American Foundations: Roles and Contributions (2010), A Versatile American Institution: The Changing Ideals and Realities of Philanthropic Foundations (2013), both with Helmut Anheier, and Ideals and Visions, Leverage and Self-Help: Foundations in America’s Regions, with Steven Rathgeb Smith (forthcoming).


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———, The churches and the Indian schools, 1888-1912  (University of Nebraska Press, 1979)

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———, Paths to the Present (Macmillan, 1949)

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2 thoughts on “Waves of Historical Interest in Philanthropy and Civil Society

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

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

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