Philanthropy and Historical Research

An Update on Open Philanthropy’s History of Philanthropy Project

Editors’ Note: Next week, this site will begin a discussion on philanthropy & education. In the meantime, HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis provides an update on his work with Open Philanthropy’s history of philanthropy project.

Several years ago, GiveWell, a nonprofit that evaluates charities and advises donors on effective giving, began to consider how historical inquiry might help them in their analysis of philanthropic impact. The thinking was that if you wanted to know what sorts of philanthropic interventions might work in the future, it made sense to look at what has worked in the past. And to do that required more than just a cursory case study; it would take the rigor, nuance, deep contextualization, broader chronological perspective and openness to contingency that marks the best historical scholarship.

In early 2013, I began to consult with GiveWell on this effort. I started by exploring the question of how philanthropic impact had been addressed in the historiography of modern philanthropy (short answer: not very thoroughly). Then I began a series of detailed case studies of philanthropic initiatives of the past half-century noted for their claims to high impact. In the background of this research lurked the counter-factual: what would have been different if the philanthropic intervention in question had not materialized? These case studies also took up a question that all historical works must confront: how to balance the agency of an individual (be it an institution or a man or woman) against larger structural forces and broader political, economic and social currents?

My first aim with this work was to lay out as granular a narrative as possible, and to uncover the mechanism, processes and relationships by which philanthropic impact was achieved. But I also hoped to probe the evidentiary and—to get a bit heavy, epistemic—foundations of the claims to philanthropic impact more generally. When we talk about exceptional philanthropic impact, what precisely do we mean and—at least when it comes to making historical claims—on what grounds do we make those assertions? Are there limits to what sort of claims the historical record allows us to make?

Last year, GiveWell partnered with Good Ventures, a foundation established by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, to start the Open Philanthropy Project. Open Phil has expanded on the initial work done by GiveWell in establishing a program dedicated to the history of philanthropy. As of now, there are a number of historical case studies in the works, undertaken by several different historians.

The Open Philanthropy Project has just published one of these, an in-depth case study that I wrote on the role of philanthropy in the passage of the Affordable Care Act (warning: it’s very long). It begins with an investigation into the role of one particular foundation: Atlantic Philanthropies, which funded Health Care for America Now!, one of the leading health care reform advocacy organizations. It then turns its attention to several other funders who worked to push the ACA toward the legislative finish line. But the report also takes a broader chronological view and looks into the contributions of funders, both advocacy oriented and research-focused, that, over the last few decades, had lain the groundwork for much of HCAN’s advocacy.

Balancing these two timeframes—the proximate homestretch and the long dureé, well before a clear immediate legislative outcome is evident—creates a particular challenge for the historian of philanthropic impact; there is a clear bias in much of the literature toward noting the contributions of advocacy groups that help make the final push, and whose claims can overshadow the work of funders who helped prepare the way. This challenge was a particular difficult one in the case of health care reform, because the field was just so crowded—both historically and during the actual legislative process.

And this leads to one of the central themes of the case study, a sort of evaluative paradox that presided over much of my research into the ACA: the more consequential a legislative enactment, and the higher the stakes—and the potential impact—the more stakeholders who have an interest in its fate and who are engaged in the process, and the more difficult it is for any one particular stakeholder—philanthropic or otherwise—to claim definitive impact. Nearly all those whom I interviewed for the case study issued a similar refrain in this regard: they were relatively certain that philanthropy did have an impact in the passage of the ACA (as well as in its composition), but they thought it especially difficult to say with any definiteness the nature of that impact, or to isolate it to any particular initiative or moment. I suspect that this “certainty toward the general claims and ‘fuzziness’ toward particular ones,” as I write in the case study (quoting a source) might be a general characteristic of much historical work on philanthropic impact.

As the Open Philanthropy Project attempts to encourage more historians to engage the question of philanthropic impact (and more on this effort in a later post), it will be fascinating to see how the field manages that tension between the definite and the indeterminate. It will be an issue that HistPhil will be watching closely.

-Benjamin Soskis

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

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