Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Inequality / Philanthropy and the State / Philanthropy in Sweden

Philanthropy in Sweden: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Opportunities

Editors’ Note: Providing a sweeping history of civil society in Sweden, Lars Trägårdh continues our forum on philanthropy in Sweden. Based on this historical lens, Lars explains the relative novelty of philanthropy in Sweden and concludes by suggesting the types of philanthropy-state relations to which Swedes likely will be most receptive.

Compared with most other Western countries, Sweden stands out for the relative absence of a strong philanthropic tradition, especially during the post-WWII period. Indeed, until recently “philanthropy” and “charity” carried distinctly negative connotations, emitting for many Swedes a faint odor suggesting practices that are old-fashioned and morally dubious. The country’s welfare state reflects and reinforces this general public perception, placing a premium on financing through taxes over private giving and on tax-funded social rights and investments over charity and nonprofit ventures.

However, there is in Sweden today a growing interest in nonprofits and philanthropies. We see a new generation of young entrepreneurs such as Niklas Zennström (Skype), Markus Persson (Minecraft), Stefan Persson (Hennes & Mauritz), Daniel Ek (Spotify) and Sigrid and Lisbet Rausing (Tetrapak) inspired by the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and other American so-called philantrocapitalists, a concept coined by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in their book Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save The World (2008). Such Swedish philanthropic actors see, just as their American counterparts, philanthropic investments as a natural continuation of their commercial activity, imagining that they can invest the same energy and creativity that has made them wealthy in their for-profit companies in non-profit ventures, and with similar success. There is also a small but possibly growing interest within the academic community to explore both the history and contemporary landscape of charitable giving, as suggested by the 2017 seminar inspiring this HistPhil forum.

Scholars’ and entrepreneurs’ increased interest in philanthropy and charity in Sweden overlaps with a national discussion on the ability of the public sector to meet the future demands and expectations of the citizenry. This debate has also been normative, pitting those who defend state monopolies against those who prefer greater diversity with respect to the provision of central social services, including education, healthcare and elderly care. This has led to reforms that have opened up the possibility for both for-profit and non-profit producers to enter these fields.

However, it has become clear that the vast majority of the new actors are for-profit companies. At the same time the majority of the Swedish voters indicate in opinion polls that they dislike for-profit actors in the social welfare sector. As a consequence, the debate now revolves around the question if it is possible to introduce regulations that favor non-profits ventures over for-profit companies. Such arguments hinge on the idea that non-profit ventures could do a better job than for-profits in providing the diversity that citizens desire while still echoing the state’s task to further the public good rather than enabling private profit. Reflecting the goals of the public sector but embodying the private sector’s business models if not profit-maximizing goals, private non-profit actors, some have argued, could be better suited both to innovate and to be more cost efficient, and might be able to play an important role in both deepening democratic life and ensuring the timely – and cost-effective – provision of social services at a time when the welfare state is perceived to be under both economic and political duress.

In other words, we witness today in Sweden a coincidence of a perceived need in society for efficient and creative alternatives to the state as provider of social services and the emergence of a new class of eager philanthropists. It is a perfect storm that, conceivably, could signal an approaching philanthropic revolution in Sweden. Yet, there are also good reasons why a less philanthro-enthusiastic and more historically-inclined observer might want to throw a wet towel on this vision. In what follows, I will attempt to provide a brief historical sketch of the history of civil society in Sweden and conclude with a few comments on how these historical legacies both enable and limit the future possibilities for philanthropy and charity in Sweden.

In looking for a genesis to civil society in Sweden, Swedish historians generally have focused on the “three big” social and political movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the free churches, the temperance movement, and the labor movement. However, Swedish associational life in the nineteenth century was far more diverse that that. To be sure, free churches struggling for religious freedom were both early and very important, but there were also organizations devoted to nationalistic gymnastics, sharp shooter associations, adult education study circles, peasants’ cooperatives, women’s groups, and much, much else.

This category of “much else” included philanthropy. The context was the very rapid economic growth starting in the 1870s, which was the beginning of a 100-year period when growth rates in Sweden were globally exceeded only by Japan. This brought a general rise in income, prosperity, health, and well-being for the vast majority, but it also involved inequality and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. A very important part of civil society at this time became, for this reason, organizations that in various ways sought to ameliorate suffering and pain caused by poverty, unemployment, sickness, and old age: self-help groups, cooperatives, religious groups, charities and philanthropic foundations.

Among the many ventures that were founded during this period was Ersta Diakoni, one of the owners of my own academic institution (Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College), which was established in 1851. Ersta Diakoni, with its roots in the German Lutheran diaconal tradition, in turn started the first program educating and training nurses in Sweden and today runs one of the premier non-state, private, non-profit hospitals in Stockholm. Ersta and other religiously informed institutions saw its mission within a Christian tradition stressing the duty to care and to serve. This was a philanthropic tradition that was closely associated with charity; the call to directly prevent or limit hardship.

And yet, even though the links between charity and philanthropy were and remain important in Sweden, there are also good reasons to keep these two phenomena and histories separate. To this point, Swedish historian Roger Qvarsell stresses a distinct tradition of scientific and politically-oriented philanthropy in Sweden. These were forms of philanthropy that aimed to reform society at large and in the long term, rather than to address immediate problems at specific locations involving particular individuals in the short term.

This definition of philanthropy came to the fore in the U.S. during the later years of the nineteenth century, and particularly through the publications and funding examples of U.S. steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and railroad tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Similar to Carnegie and Rockefeller, Swedish philanthropists in the early twentieth century had as a long-term goal not to replace the state but to improve its functioning by convincing national and local government to adopt and scale-up good ideas and experiments that they initiated. This kind of philanthropy produced many results early on, being instrumental in passing early welfare legislation such as the pension reforms of 1913 and the poverty law of 1918, as well as in the creation, in 1913, of the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) as a key government agency in Sweden, currently operating under the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.

As the U.S. historian Maribel Morey has shown in her research concerning the relations between the leading social scientists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, who were closely aligned with the Swedish Social Democrats, and major U.S. philanthropic foundations such as the Rockefeller and Carnegie organizations in the 1920s and 1930s, the contacts between Swedish Social democracy and U.S. philanthropy were both deep and enduring. As she notes in this forum, Carnegie’s and Rockefellers’ first generation of staff members promoted a vision of philanthropy— “scientific planning philanthropy”—that placed philanthropy as champion of centralized bureaucratic states. Indeed, as she explains, one might even argue that U.S. philanthropy’s expectations for creating networks between philanthropists, academics and government, with the aim of transformative social engineering to create a model society, was more fully realized in Sweden than in the U.S. In a sense, then, not only did early philanthropists in Sweden echo Carnegie’s and Rockefeller’s approach to philanthropy, but the Swedish welfare state can be thought of as the ultimate realization of a U.S. philanthropic perspective of the 1920s and 1930s.

However, this history of charity and philanthropy in Sweden is not well-known. After the introduction of universal suffrage in Sweden in 1920 and even more emphatically from the 1930s when the Social Democrats began their long-term reign of power, the history of philanthropy (as well as charity) in the country became overshadowed by Swedes’ increasing preoccupation with state actors. Citizens’ focus, that is, began to shift from civil society to the state, from membership in associations to citizenship, from self-help and charity to social rights, from philanthropy to taxes.  Within the working-class movement and the Social Democratic party, philanthropy and charity became subject to a harsh and enduring critique. If charity may have provided the giver with a warm feeling in the belly – an expression of an impulse rooted in altruism and compassion – it could also be experienced as deeply insulting and degrading to those who stood cap in hand. Many argued that philanthropy was based on (and in fact further entrenched) undemocratic and unequal power relations, through which the “little people” (småfolket) were subject to demeaning charity by the better off bourgeoisie. Thus a primary purpose for the architects of the emerging welfare state was the emancipation of all members of society from dependency on this type of upper-class benevolence that structurally was tied to inequality and a hierarchical social order. In this way universal, tax-financed social rights were pitted against the demeaning and stigmatizing dynamics of charitable and philanthropic giving.

This binary resulted in Swedes’ declining participation in philanthropy and charity, even if both remained important at the margins, with a small number of philanthropic foundations primarily supporting medical research. From their end, charities, often with Christian roots, catered to the truly marginalized, such as those with alcohol and drug addictions, who were not the principal focus of the welfare state. From the mid-to-late twentieth century, that is, philanthropy and charity evolved in Sweden in the shadow of the welfare state, while the U.S. and most European countries south of Scandinavia came to develop welfare systems that to a much greater extent incorporated civil society. In countries like the U.S. and Germany, the private provision of social services such as healthcare, elderly care and education developed either as alternatives to state institutions (the U.S.) or in close collaboration with the state in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity (Germany).

In the beginning of the twentieth century, that is, Sweden shared a more similar history of philanthropy and charity to these two countries, echoing experiences in membership-based, democratic, and political associations, in liberal self-help groups, and in Christian and upper-class charity and philanthropy. The three countries began to diverge, however, after WWII to the point that they today represent three rather different models for the financing and production of social services. After the Second World War, tax laws were introduced in the U.S., including the law from 1954 that under paragraph 501(c) that favored charities and non-profits providing services over organizations focusing on membership and political voice, and Germany built a social market economy privileging family values and non-profit organizations. Quite distinctly, Sweden moved decisively towards building a welfare state based on an alliance of individual and state, without intermediaries such as non-profit organizations (or the family unit), choosing instead to privilege individual autonomy, gender equality, and children’s rights through a system that was built on the principle: taxes in; social rights out.

Given this historical legacy there are reasons both to be optimistic and to be pessimistic about the potential for a revival of philanthropy in Sweden. On the one hand, the models of philanthropy-state relations in the age of Carnegie and Rockefeller as well as that of their organizations in the 1920s and 1930s, with their positive view of the state and democracy, appear to be well in line with the historical development of modern Sweden that still is relevant today. However, the latter-day type of Anglo-Saxon philanthropy that leans towards anti-statism and charity and which brings with it anti-democratic tendencies and the cult of the philanthro-capitalist genius, would appear to sit less well within the framework of Swedish tradition and political culture.

-Lars Trägårdh

Lars Trägårdh is a Professor of History and Civil Society Studies at Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College in Stockholm, Sweden. He received his Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley in 1993 and then joined the Department of History at Barnard College, Columbia University for ten years. In 2011-13 he served as member of the Swedish Prime Minister’s Commission on the Future of Sweden.

Photo credit: Sofia Runarsdotter

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