In remembrance

Peter Dobkin Hall (1946-2015)

Editors’ NoteOn April 30, American philanthropic and nonprofit history lost one of its leading scholars. Peter Dobkin Hall’s work — ambitious, provocative, and meticulously researched — helped define the field, sparking debate and seeding lines of research inquiry, as did his leadership in organizations and institutions such as ARNOVA, Yale’s Program on Nonprofit Organizations, and Harvard’s Hauser Institute for Civil Society. Today, HistPhil offers reflections on the man and his work from two of Hall’s colleagues. This first tribute is by David C. Hammack, followed by another by George E. Marcus. Another moving tribute to Hall, from legal scholar Evelyn Brody, can be found at the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog

Peter Dobkin Hall made a remarkable array of contributions to the history of philanthropy in the United States.  He announced one of his continuing themes – the overriding influence of class, class ambition, and class conflict in shaping giving – just as he completed his Ph.D. dissertation with William R. Taylor at Stony Brook, in an article, “The Model of Boston Charity: A Theory of Charitable Benevolence and Class Development” (Science and Society, Winter 1974); he pursued this theme over four decades, in Lives in Trust: The Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Twentieth Century America (with George E. Marcus, 1992), and in “Rediscovering the Bourgeoisie: Higher Education and Governing Class  Formation in the United States, 1870-1914,” in  Sven Beckert and Julia Rosenbaum,  The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century (2011).  Yet Hall also took religion and “regional” culture very seriously, a focus evident in The Lehigh Valley: An Illustrated History (with K.L.K. Hall, 1982), in The Organization of American Culture, 1700-1900 (1984), and in Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations (co-edited with N.J. Demerath, Rhys Williams, and Terry Schmitt, 1998).  A harsh critic of institutional promotion, Hall dismissed claims that the “nonprofit sector” was a distinctive component of American society, yet he wrote semi-official overviews of the “history of the nonprofit sector” for the most widely-used handbooks for researchers who focus on the “sector” (Richard Steinberg & Walter W. Powell (eds), The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, 2006; and Robert Herman (ed.), The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 2004).  Trained during the short period when many historians allied with the social sciences, Hall became emphatically a historian in the “social-intellectual” mode, yet he put together, with social science historian Colin B. Burke, the invaluable tables and overview essay on “Voluntary, Nonprofit, and Religious Entities” for one of the monuments to social science history, Historical Statistics of the United States – Millennial Edition, 2006).

Such a list reflects and reveals two notable aspects of Peter Dobkin Hall’s work in the field.  Over and again, he found productive ways to work with others, and to resonate with their preoccupations.  He found himself at Yale’s Program on Non-Profit Organizations and at Yale Divinity School for fifteen years, and then at Harvard’s Hauser Center on Nonprofit Organizations for more than five years, and at both places he worked as a research scholar and seminar leader in a specialized research center rather than as a teaching member of an academic department.  From these positions he played important roles in the early days of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), helping to set up conferences, editing the book review section of the association’s interdisciplinary journal, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, organizing the association’s lively listserv.  For many nonhistorians who took up the study of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations, Peter Hall became the historian who could describe the field’s past in a way that compelled attention.

In his influential book of essays, Inventing the Nonprofit Sector, Hall began by challenging what he described as the “current consensus” in the field:  that terms such as “third sector, nonprofit sector, and independent sector” and adjectives such as “voluntary,” “private,” “charitable,” and “philanthropic” had come to be accepted on “all sides” as anodyne and legitimate.  Yet, he asked,

What, after all, is really meant when people speak of nonprofits?  For some, the term implies altruistic or charitable activity, but many nonprofits do neither.  For others, the term implies voluntarism; but many nonprofits are not voluntary organizations, nor do private agencies have a monopoly on voluntary action.  Although it makes sense to group institutions according to the products they provide, the services they deliver, or their forms of organization, the terms nonprofit  and nonprofit sector have little to do with either, because any of the goods and services produced by nonprofits can be and are also supplied by businesses and government agencies.” (p. 1).

Nor, he added, are nonprofits mostly supported by charitable donations – they derive 80% of their income from the sale of services to those who use them, or to governments.  Nonprofits are tax exempt, but so, he added, are government agencies, and in not a few cases, profit-seeking firms also win tax exemption, at least for a time.

Hall went on to argue that American nonprofits reflected the dominance of a particular set of forces in American life.

What gives American nongovernmental organizations their special character and their crucially important function in the American polity is their concrete historical association with a particular institutional culture, a configuration of values, resources, organizational technologies, legal infrastructure, and styles of leadership.

And, he insisted, all this had a particular association with a long period of American history.  This distinctive “institutional culture,” he wrote,

originated at the end of the eighteenth century, became dominant (though not unchallenged) in the twentieth, and entered a period of crisis—quite possibly a crisis of success rather than of failure—in our own time. (p. 2).

Hall wrote his longest essay about the criticism of foundations as devices for the self-enrichment and for undue political influence of the rich, a criticism that led to the enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1969.  He described that criticism, together with arguments – from advocates for nonprofit autonomy such as the Filer Commission as well as from critics and government officials – over the detailed implementation of the 1969 act’s new restrictions on foundations and their donors, as “the climactic debate . . . over the power and privileges of private institutions claiming to act in the public interest.” (p. 2).

Historians can find such statements both stimulating and worthy of further exploration and debate.  At the level of close examination of historical realities, every historian cheers calls for thoughtful consideration of the meaning of important terms, and for challenging definitions designed by those in dominant positions to control debate.  Many historians also endorse calls for relating the study of special topics to larger narratives.

For historians, Peter Hall’s great virtue was his commitment to asking tough questions. For historical research, his reach does sometimes seem ambitious – even overly ambitious.  Regarding the meaning of words, a historian taking up Hall’s challenge might be inclined to ask what the Filer Commission was really trying to accomplish by pushing the term “nonprofit,” might want to ask whether the very broad definition of “charity” in U.S. law should not get some attention and respect, or whether, for example, the (Jewish and) Christian definition of “charity” to include support for schools and for the education, the livings, and the retirements of clergy and teachers has not exerted greater influence in American history than in commonly recognized.  Regarding larger narratives, historians would want to ask whether the American “private institutions claiming to act in the public interest” throughout the twentieth century did not often argue fundamentals with one another to such a degree that they did not really constitute a single “culture”.  Surely Catholic and Evangelical universities and colleges have continued to think of themselves as challenging their secular and liberal counterparts; surely many Southern churches and schools have continued to uphold visions of national purpose and the good society that many of their Northern competitors reject.  One of Hall’s great virtues was his eagerness to provoke discussion of such difficult topics.

For non-historian students of nonprofits – for analysts of policy and management, and for advocates for women, minorities, and the poor – Peter Hall’s history proved to be useful precisely because it aimed to undermine the bland terms used to obscure controversies about “private charitable, philanthropic, and voluntary enterprise” (p. 1), yet did not aim to undermine the assumptions often made by social science.   Those who seek to control nongovernment organizations so as to advance such goals as greater equality, fairer treatment of women, and the elimination of racial disparities, might welcome the argument that “nonprofits” had “set the public’s moral and perceptual agendas” and provided “legitimacy and authority” for “every national political regime . . . since the beginning” of the twentieth century.  (p. 2). If that were true, then there must be a single “nonprofit culture” to be reigned in and reformed.  A longer view suggests that government and the courts could some day be controlled by people who rejected egalitarian liberalism.  But Hall wrote in the wake of powerful liberation movements that seemed to have carried much before them during the 1960s and 1970s.

Peter Hall and I debated these matters while he was alive, and he often expressed the wish that we could create a prominent platform on which to engage each other and the general public.  In a eulogy it is not customary to raise questions of the sort I’ve raised here.  But Peter Dobkin Hall aimed to provoke debate: a memorial note that failed to take up his challenge would not do him justice.

-David C. Hammack

David C. Hammack is the Hiram C. Hadyn Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. He has written extensively on the history of America’s civil society and nonprofit sector and on the history of cities, the built environment, and education.

One thought on “Peter Dobkin Hall (1946-2015)

  1. Pingback: What I Shared With Peter Dobkin Hall | HistPhil

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