Philanthropy in the News

What it means to think historically about philanthropy

Broadly conceived, HistPhil is dedicated to encouraging the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors to think historically about their work. What, precisely, this means in practice is still something of an open question. Two recent op-eds have helped me in approaching an answer.

In The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Tom Watson celebrates the Ford Foundation’s recently announced commitment to use its resources to promote a “social justice infrastructure” through unrestricted grants for nonprofit operating support. Walker claims this signals an important shift in the way foundations are thinking about social change, with the grantee organization serving as the main agent. But he also suggests it represents a shift in historical thinking about the sector as well. “It’s a mature and serious nod to the general realization that making progress on problems like inequality, poverty, disease, and climate change is more like a tugboat shifting an ocean liner across a busy harbor than a speedboat racing to the finish line.” He contrasts this view to the “transactional short termism,” borrowing a line from Ford’s Darren Walker, imposed by imperial foundations on grantees.

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kimberly Dasher Tripp and Michael Kleinman remind philanthropists, especially those of the newly minted “hacker” persuasion, that they should not be too quick to assume that those who came before them have nothing to offer their pursuit of achieving maximum impact. “Ignoring these decades of experience and existing networks of experts doesn’t make you innovative,” they caution, “it simply means that you have a strong chance of reinventing the wheel.”

Taken together, these two editorials suggest an important link between the ways that we think about philanthropy’s past and about philanthropy’s future. It’s a link that I hope HistPhil will continue to strengthen. To me, thinking historically about philanthropy doesn’t mean promoting a sort of Antique Roadshow of the sector, in which we wheel out dusty programs from the past to appraise as museum pieces (though that being said, feel free to let HistPhil know about the weird initiative you learned about when cleaning out the foundation closet). And it doesn’t mean encouraging gradualism for its own sake, or, for that matter, discouraging the sort of bold interventions into the sector that might appeal to self-styled social hackers or entrepreneurs.

But it does suggest that even in the midst of moments of heady social transformation, such as we’ve just experienced, it’s worth tracing out the thread of that change. Doing so will inevitably expose its complexity, revealing multiple causal factors, and many different institutions and organizations who have contributed over la longue durée. It doesn’t deny the power of individual funders, but insists on carefully scrutinizing their role in achieving social change alongside broader structural forces and the contributions of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, and governmental entities. If this perspective brings with it a certain degree of modesty in considerations of what philanthropy can hope to achieve on its own, it’s a modesty infused with an appreciation that what is has achieved is significant, and a commitment to make the most of that knowledge in taking on the challenges of the future.

-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.

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