Philanthropy and Historical Research

An Interview with National Philanthropic Trust’s Eileen Heisman on NPT’s new History of Modern Philanthropy website

Editors’ Note: On Tuesday, National Philanthropic Trust (NPT) unveiled a new History of Modern Philanthropy website at, a digital resource that covers the last 500 years of global philanthropy. The digital exhibition highlights 200 moments in global philanthropy illustrated by almost 100 rare media assets, including documents, audio and video. Below is an edited transcript of two conversations between NPT’s CEO Eileen Heisman and HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis, that occurred earlier this week.

 Benjamin Soskis: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of National Philanthropic Trust’s History of Modern Philanthropy project? What inspired you to take it on?

Eileen Heisman: I’ve been teaching a graduate course on philanthropy and fundraising for non-profits at the University of Pennsylvania, and this is my tenth year. It’s a survey course, and I always feel that the first session we should go over topics related to the history of philanthropy. And when I first started to research that, ten years ago, there was so little [material] to find. I just couldn’t easily access things.

Then, when we had our tenth year anniversary [nine years ago], we decided in honor of it we were going to do a booklet that was the history of North American philanthropy. So we did this chronological history of highlights of North American philanthropy—we tried to go back to Native Americans, so not just the Anglo version. I liked it but I always had the vision that it wasn’t enough.

[NPT] had gone global in 2001 and in the last few years, the amount of global grant-making work that we have done has been huge. And in addition to that, I was invited to speak about philanthropy in China, and I was on the community foundation advisory committee in Singapore. And information about the history of philanthropy in other countries was even harder to find. So I said to Brian Case, who is my VP for communication, we should really do something [about the history of philanthropy] bigger and grander. And he was on it right away. And we said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did it globally?”

I thought, “wouldn’t it be great to have all this evidence-based information that could show that the genesis of philanthropy as we know it—and I define philanthropy as the love of mankind as opposed to just giving money—that the things we do here have roots in many places and cultures. That this has taken place all over the world for centuries.”

The world of the web, and its ease of use, has changed so much. As we were creating [the website], we got the idea that we could make it changeable—that we could expand it. I said to Brian, let’s not us be the curators of this necessarily, or the authors. Lets hire people who are really seasoned about understanding historical trends. So Brian did all the legwork; I was always on the conceptual side. Brian interviewed a couple of places that do historical research for museums. We had a framework of the kinds of things that we wanted. We hired this group in Rockville, [Maryland], History Associates.

Brian felt really strongly about this. He wanted to create an arc that was going to have key events that highlighted how we have gotten to the philanthropic state that we are in today. So we picked 200 entries initially and we decided that we were going to plot them on a map all over the globe. And that you could navigate it by continent or by topic area. So we picked 200 entries that took place from 1500 to today and tried to create the arc of the important philanthropic activities that we engage in now.

I hope and expect that we will get a lot more suggestions that will fill out the arc in a lot of different ways. I want to interpret this arc in the most flexible way we can. I don’t want it to be rigidly and narrowly defined. I hope that we get people to tell us, “You missed this.” It wasn’t meant to be a laundry list of philanthropic acts, or an encyclopedia. It was meant to create a story.

Soskis: At this moment there’s been a number of other efforts to bring the history of philanthropy into more prominence in the realm of public history. I’m thinking of the Smithsonian, for instance, which recently announced a major initiative to focus on philanthropy. And there are a few other trends that are similar to that. Are you seeing more interest either among the public or donors in this topic?

Heisman: I think the web has made information so available to people that you are used to getting this instant gratification if you have a curiosity about something. But if you want to get something about what’s going on in the world of philanthropy, it’s pretty hard to get. It’s really piecemeal and hard to find anything in an organized way. So I think the web has really whetted people’s appetite. And for a certain group of people, looking backward is a common thing: asking what’s the genesis, and knowing that it didn’t start with them.

I mean, look at Julius Rosenwald. He did all these things that people are now calling venture philanthropy and he died in 1932!

So I think [an interest in] history is whetted by the internet and the difficulty of getting information. And also, maybe we’re getting smart finally, and saying, while it’s great that Americans brag so much about what we do, there’s no way that we invented this thing.

I think we are just learning about different traditions of giving more. When I was early in this business—and I got my first job in professional philanthropy in 1986—there was no coverage of philanthropy. The Chronicle didn’t exist yet. The New York Times had one reporter. You never saw stories about philanthropy anywhere—maybe a story about a random big gift. But you saw very little information about philanthropy. Fast-forward now, with all the magazines about money, like Bloomberg. The Chronicle has made a huge contribution, and the AFP [Association of Fundraising Professionals] and Advancing Philanthropy magazine. Philanthropy Roundtable has a publication. All the conferences. That stuff is relatively recent. And it’s hard to know what you are interested in when you don’t know where to start. So I think a lot of the writing about philanthropy, only within the last 15 to 20 years, has really helped.

Have you ever been to Turkey?

Soskis: No, I haven’t.

Heisman: Three years ago, my husband and I went on a vacation to Turkey and Greece. We were in Kuşadasi and this was mind-blowing to me. We were visiting ruins that used to be in the ocean and the ocean shifted and now it’s very much inland. And there was this library that they had spent many years restoring, and there was this magnificent front of the building. My tour guide said, “You see the words on the top there? Do you know what that is?” And I said, “Library of the City of Ephesus?” And he said, “Nah, that’s not what it says. Those are the names of the donors, and the bigger the letters, the more money they gave.” He said that to me and I started laughing. He had no idea what I did for a living. Later I told him what I did and I said, “We haven’t come very far.” That was one of the “Aha” moments I had. This information [about the history of philanthropy] has literally been buried.

Soskis: So let me ask you a little more about that. As the history gets disinterred, how would you like to see donors or the public engage with it?

Heisman: I don’t know if [the site] will inspire people to give more, but it will give them a sense that if they are philanthropists, they are a part of a long tradition, that people have been doing it around the world for centuries. I mean, people have been doing “strategic” or “venture” philanthropy forever! People have been using philanthropy to question social practices or problems for centuries all around the world. And it’s just a matter of can you find something that will inspire you and can we shed some light that you are not the first one doing it.

I’m not a person of wealth, I’m just a student of philanthropy and a practitioner. I don’t know what it’s like to be inside a donor’s head. But what I would hope is that those who are the learning, curious kind of donor will take out of the website what they need to be more thoughtful about philanthropy, to reflect more on it, [to appreciate] that they are part of an arc, that they are putting the next brick in place.

I would really like American students who use it to realize that this tradition that we think we own, we really don’t own. That was really important to me: that we get that around the world, acts of kindness have been as powerful over the centuries as our own acts of human kindness are now.

Soskis: How could you see the project developing in the future?

Heisman: We wanted to have media attached to many of these entries. We had a very limited budget for media. We are hoping that if we get some more money to enhance [the website], it will be related to getting more media, so people can see the acts of philanthropy we are highlighting.

And we really feel like 200 [entries] isn’t enough. In order for it to be meaningful, there are some continents that need to be fleshed out. I think we are a little heavy on North America and Western Europe. I think we could do better in Africa, and Southeast Asia and South America. And what I’m hoping is that historians in those countries will say, “there are 5 things that we really need [to add].” I’m really looking forward to adding to it. I really want it to be a dynamic project.

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