Philanthropy and Historical Research

A Historian in a Management-Oriented Field

Editors’ Note: With this piece by Peter C. Weber, we continue our discussion on the history of philanthropy. 

It is not always easy being a historian of philanthropy in a field that is an increasingly management-oriented one. As I am starting my first academic position as Director of Nonprofit Leadership Studies at Murray State University, I am gradually becoming more aware of the challenges in adapting my perspective as a researcher to the necessities of an educational program in nonprofit studies education. Nonprofit and philanthropic studies is a complex field because it tries to integrate the sometimes overlapping but often contrasting perspectives of the practitioner, the scholar, and the advocate. As a result, I find myself reflecting on my identity as an instructor and scholar more than in the past.

I entered the field over ten years ago as a history student interested in the role of philanthropy and philanthropic institutions in the building of democracy and civil society in twentieth-century Germany. By moving to the United States to pursue a doctorate in Philanthropic Studies, I semi-consciously moved from a discipline-based perspective to a field of study. This transition paralleled the increasing formalization of nonprofit studies education, as the field has evolved from a disciplinary interest in nonprofit organizations and philanthropy to educational programs aiming to train the future professionals and leaders of the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit studies education has thus played an important role in my development as a scholar and instructor. At the same time, however, it forces me to confront the contrasting pulls of my use of historical methods against the overall direction of nonprofit studies education. In the classroom, I perform a difficult balancing act to reconcile their, at times, contending imperatives.

The first opposition centers on philanthropy’s role in broad societal transformations. Nonprofit studies programs have the natural tendency to place philanthropy and nonprofit organizations in the foreground and over-emphasize their centrality in social dynamics. As a result, as the director of a nonprofit leadership studies program, I struggle with the delicate task of bringing philanthropy back to its right place by balancing the focus on philanthropic and nonprofit actors with – in the historian’s jargon – longue durée approaches and contextualization. I aim to educate students about philanthropy’s societal roles by pointing out, for example, the important avenues of civic and political participation that it provides to individuals. At the same time, however, I need to constantly remind students that philanthropy is only one of the forces, and a minor one, shaping broad social, political, and economic transformations. Philanthropy cannot – and arguably should not – compete with governments’ capacity to mobilize both human and material resources. History thus introduces a sense of restraint in the study of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations and in our perhaps natural tendency as scholars, instructors, and/or professionals to overstate our chosen field’s importance.

The second tension between my role as a historian and as a teacher in a nonprofit leadership program is located at the intersection of efforts aiming to legitimize the new field and the desire to advocate for philanthropy’s role in society. Philanthropy and nonprofit organizations are part of an overwhelmingly positive narrative that focuses on individual action and self-reliance, and emphasizes their intrinsic positive contributions to society. I am increasingly surprised at the tendency to focus on success stories and the lack of more open discussions on the long history of philanthropic failures. Philanthropists’ hubris and failures are part of the history of philanthropy. This lack of critical self-reflection is troubling because – as Peter Frumkin convincingly argued some time ago – philanthropy really fails when it is unable to learn from its mistakes. In this sense, historical methods can provide a better understanding of nonprofit organizations’ operations because historical case studies draw practitioners’ attention to potential barriers to program implementation in ways that best-practice papers cannot.

The third tension between my role as a historian and as an instructor in the field of nonprofit studies focuses on the mythology surrounding philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit professionals and – even more – students almost exclusively associate notions of bad philanthropy and bad nonprofit organizations with ineffectiveness and inefficiencies in providing services rather than with the complex power dynamics that surround philanthropy and voluntary associations. As a historian and Europeanist, I am perhaps more receptive than many of my colleagues to these issues. The relationship between private action and public life is a central question for a democratic society. Philanthropy and nonprofit organizations should be part of these discussions, as they provide avenues for individuals to project private actions into the public sphere. History teaches us that concerns with voluntary associations’ role in a democratic society, as well as with philanthropists’ influence on public life have always existed. Paradoxically, considering the potential influence of philanthropic mega-foundations, these concerns seem to have lost centrality in recent years. To contrast a narrative that stresses the intrinsic goodness of philanthropic and voluntary acts, I find myself emphasizing the asymmetric power dynamics that have always been – and always will – be part of philanthropy. As an instructor of nonprofit leadership studies, however, I am gradually becoming aware that this balancing act may risk undermining the idealism and passion of my students, thus making the search for the right balance between overly positive and critical perspectives a difficult, but essential, one.

While I am still navigating the tensions between the dominating narratives of this field and broader historical and critical perspectives, I continue to find my training in historical methods valuable to a field that is increasingly focusing on preparing students as future professionals in the nonprofit sector. These methods, whether applied to historical or contemporary cases, provide students with insight to the complexity of voluntary actions. History teaches students to challenge commonly-held assumptions on philanthropy’s role, impact, and influence in society, thus forcing the future leaders of the nonprofit sector not simply to seek easy answers, but to raise the right questions.

-Peter C. Weber

Peter is Assistant Professor and Director of Nonprofit Leadership Studies at Murray State University. He holds a doctorate in Philanthropic Studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, as well as a Master in History and a Master in International Studies in Philanthropy and Social Innovation, both from the University of Bologna in Italy. His research focuses on the role of civil society and international philanthropy in building democratic practices of governance in fledging democracies from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. He has published his work in Global Society, Voluntas, and the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.

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