Book Forum on Callahan's The Givers / New Works in the Field

What’s New, Philanthropy? Novelty as an Analytic Category in Callahan’s The Givers

Editors’ Note: Benjamin Soskis wraps up HistPhil’s book forum on David Callahan’s The Givers.

Although it has gotten much more attention for its commentary on the contemporary philanthropic scene, David Callahan’s The Givers also makes some important arguments about philanthropic history (for more on my thoughts on the book, see my review in the American Prospect). That’s because novelty is a key theme to Callahan’s narrative, the fuel for the sense of urgency he cultivates and the thematic touchstone for much of his analysis. Throughout the book he points to a handful of present-day developments within philanthropy and insists that they represent a significant departure from past practice and trends. Such arguments are premised on an historical understanding of how things are and how things were; to call something new, after all, is to register a claim of change over time.

The preoccupation of philanthropic leaders with the badge of novelty has been one of HistPhil’s presiding themes. We’ve often taken philanthropy to task for a sometimes vacuous and preening obsession with newness. Stan Katz and I noted elsewhere the irony that “assertions of ‘New Philanthropy’’ are themselves hardy perennials in the sector, emerging every few decades for the last century.” But while noting its slipperiness, we’ve also tried to take novelty seriously as an analytic category, one which forces scholars to think carefully about the relationship between the present and the past.

For me, Callahan’s The Givers compelled precisely that sort of thinking, even if the book does not deliver definitive answers. I found his general premise—that the generation of hands-on, living donors who have emerged over the last several decades represents an important new development in philanthropy and one that strains the uneasy balance between philanthropic freedom and civic equality—convincing. Callahan’s reporting confirms that there is something new under the philanthropic sun.

That being said, many of his historical assertions suffer from a general lack of precision and nuance, especially those that pronounce a radical discontinuity between the present moment and earlier periods of modern philanthropy. Callahan is certainly capable of both precision and nuance. In an article in the web journal he edits, Inside Philanthropy, asking “What’s Different About the ‘New Philanthropists, If Anything?,” Callahan responds that they are “the same, but different.” This modest, calibrated approach toward novelty sounds about right to me; and I wish there was even more of it in The Givers.

There is a direct parallel between this hedging and the general balancing act between commendation and condemnation that Callahan attempts in most of the book (save the final section, when the gloves come off). In both cases, the approach can be frustrating to the reader looking for a clear, definitive takeaway. However, as I make clear in my Prospect review, I think it’s the only approach that does the complexity of American philanthropy justice.

Ultimately, Callahan’s book takes an important step toward defining what is different and what is the same about contemporary philanthropy, while also underscoring the considerable analytic work that still must be done to answer those questions.


So what are Callahan’s basic arguments about philanthropic novelty? I’ll sketch them out here and offer some preliminary thoughts on additional questions those claims raise, but expect them to be the focus of HistPhil’s scrutiny in the months ahead as well.

Callahan suggests that the sector experienced a major transitional moment around the millennium (the establishment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 is a convenient temporal marker). Around this time, a critical mass of active, living donors began to appear on the scene, the product of the recent massive wealth creation and concentration, who started to push aside the endowed legacy foundations for status and influence within the sector.

What makes these mega-donors different? The source of their wealth, for one. As Stan and I have pointed out in our Hewlett monograph, when you look at the largest foundations from the mid 1980s, few of them derived their wealth from banking (the Mellon foundations being the exceptions) or from information technology, and these subsectors “have provided many of the dominant tropes that have shaped thinking about philanthropy over the last decade.” The popularization of the venture philanthropy model; the use of frequent benchmarking and a reliance on strict evaluative metrics; the short-term time horizon; the emphasis on the virtues of risk and failure: these are all tropes that are much more salient in the sector today than they were three decades ago.

But, to his credit, although Callahan does important work in surveying the philanthropic subcultures of tech and finance, he also makes clear that not all of the new donor class are young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or hedge fund billionaires obsessed with metrics. There are plenty of septuagenarian givers and donors whose wealth derived from retail or extractive industries; philanthropists who favor traditional institutions like universities, hospitals and museums; and benefactors whose giving is no more “disruptive” (and perhaps even less so) than the early 20th century philanthropy of Rockefeller, Carnegie or Sage. Callahan’s book makes the basic but important point that, unlike the relatively homogenous philanthropy establishment of a half century ago, these new mega-donors are a diverse lot, some more “novel” than others.

Relatedly, there are now many more of them, and they have even more money. As he notes, when the Forbes 400 list debuted in 1982, it had just thirteen billionaires on it. Now you need $1.7 billion just to make the list. Ultimately, the idea of the novelty of unprecedented scale—both in terms of the wealth of mega-philanthropists and their sheer numbers—lies at the heart of his analysis. For instance: “Wealthy business titans have long used philanthropy to wage ideological warfare and contest the highest ground of U.S. politics,” he writes. “What’s different now is that a far greater number of rich people are deploying more money to this end than ever before, and with a greater level of sophistication.”

And here is how he addresses Sean Parker and hacker philanthropy: “In short, donors like Sean Parker are anything but new to philanthropy. Yet such donors—those intent on spending fast to find breakthroughs or achieve disruptive change—are more numerous than ever before, especially among the ranks of younger entrepreneurs emerging as major winners from tech and finance.”

In Callahan’s telling, a difference in degree transforms into a difference in kind. Size—of fortunes and of data sets—matters. His contention is less that particular forms of giving are entirely without precedent than that the scale of such giving is. There are now more givers like Parker—even if all givers are not like him and even if there have been others like him before. And it is this critical mass that triggers Callahan’s concerns about the threat that philanthropy poses to civic equality (the element of his book that has attracted the most public attention).

This critical mass is now defined by the characteristics of the living (as opposed to the institutional) donor. This is another novel feature Callahan claims for the contemporary sector, though even with his account, we still do not have a clear picture of how philanthropy directed by living donors differs in terms of strategy, interests, and priorities from philanthropy designed by legacy foundations (in part because those legacy foundations don’t really appear much in his book, depriving it of comparative perspective). Callahan suggests that the prominence of living donors within the sector, funders closely tied to realms of business and enterprise, will have important consequences with respect to philanthropy’s political orientation. He argues “that the values and preferences of the upper class will play a much bigger role in driving organized, large-scale philanthropy than has been the case in the recent past,” and therefore the sector as a whole will be less inclined to pursue social justice and progressive causes. Many of our ideas about the ideological biases of philanthropy, he cautions, are becoming obsolete, a product of a different era, when the Ford Foundation loomed over the scene and experienced grantmakers presided over the sector.

Callahan highlights another novel element of these living mega-donors: their increased politicization. They are more policy-focused than their philanthropic predecessors, Callahan notes, and there are a host of nonprofits, often fiercely partisan in their orientation, available for them to channel their giving through. Here’s Callahan:

“Today’s vast world of nonprofit groups with strong policy agendas didn’t exist a century ago. This world didn’t even exist 45 years ago, when Congress last revisited charitable tax law in a major way. It has emerged largely since the 1970s, financed by a new breed of activist philanthropists like Richard Scaife on the right and George Soros on the left. The past decade has seen a notable acceleration in money flowing to this world.”

Placing the transition moment in the 1970s—presumably when Ford and a few other funders helped to create many of the advocacy organizations that took up key positions within the environmental, gay, women’s, Native American, and Latino rights movements—undermines Callahan’s claims of novelty a bit. Given this decades-long timeframe, we seem to be dealing more with a continuum of politicization, which fits into Callahan’s “same, but different” framework. That is, philanthropy has been politicized for a while, but Callahan suggests that it has crossed some crucial, problematic threshold in recent years brought on by the increased numbers of politicized donors and the inventiveness and aggressiveness of their efforts (sparked in part by an arms race between conservative and progressive funders). Callahan juxtaposes the politicization of elite donors alongside another trend, a sharp decline in civic engagement and in the faith in public institutions more generally, which amplifies his assertions of novelty. “With government stepping back, philanthropy is stepping forward—and occupying a bigger seat at the table of power than at any time in the past century,” he writes.

Callahan places these developments in some modest historical context (relying, for instance, on the work of Theda Skocpol), but the politicization of elite giving and its relationship to broad-based civic disengagement calls out for more attention, analysis and scrutiny.

Callahan underscores one other novel element of contemporary philanthropy that’s worth mentioning. He notes that living donors are not merely more engaged—they can also rely on a host of intermediary organizations that facilitate and focus this engagement. Donors-advised funds, funding collaboratives, consultant firms, research organizations and donor networks are among the institutions that have sprung up within the last several decades to instruct and guide individual donors. One of the most important elements of Callahan’s book is that he gives these intermediary institutions the attention they deserve and that they rarely get in the academic literature. Here is a genuinely novel feature of the philanthropic landscape, highlighted in The Givers, that could use more scholarly scrutiny to help us determine precisely what is new and what is not, what is different and what is the same, about contemporary philanthropy.

-Benjamin Soskis

Benjamin Soskis, a co-editor of HistPhil, is a Research Associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.

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