COVID-19 Pandemic

Philanthropy in a time of crisis: Lessons from European History

Editors’ Note: Rhodri Davies looks to the history of philanthropy’s responses to epidemics and other crises in Europe over the last five centuries for insights on the themes that might help us understand how it is likely to do so today.

Those working in civil society may feel as though they don’t have the luxury of thinking about history in the midst of a pandemic. But even if it now seems like a luxury, I would argue that it is more important than ever to bring a historical perspective to our thinking if we are to understand the issues that times of crisis may raise for philanthropy, and to look ahead to possible post-pandemic futures. In my day job as a policy practitioner I have found myself drawing heavily on my research into the history of British and European philanthropy as I try to think through the implications of Covid-19. Whilst our current situation may be unprecedented in many ways, I believe there are important themes we can identify from looking at past epidemics and other crises that can help to frame the questions we should be asking today.

Centralizing & rationalizing philanthropy

A common theme in historical crises is that they lead to efforts to rationalize or centralize philanthropy. This is often out of frustration at the perceived inefficiency or wastefulness of voluntary provision—which may be seen as tolerable in normal times on the basis of plurality and preserving donor choice, but which become intolerable in the face of the overwhelming need that an epidemic can bring. The German city of Hamburg, for example, suffered from a number of “plague years” in the early 18th century which, as Mary Lindemann recounts, led to efforts by city leaders to rationalize the existing system of voluntary poor relief. At first this was on a temporary basis as a form of what she termed plague prophylaxis but it subsequently paved the way for wider efforts to impose a degree of permanent centralized control over philanthropic activity.

We can see similar themes emerging at other times of crisis, such as war. In the UK during WWI, for instance, there were efforts to rationalize charity through centralized control. In 1914, a new National Relief Fund was established under the auspices of the Prince of Wales, with the aim of coordinating the supply of philanthropic capital towards the war effort. Despite some success this fund proved insufficient for the task and in 1915 the British government established a new post of Director General of Voluntary Organisations, with a remit to further systematize voluntary effort and charitable giving. However, the powers of the role were limited, and growing concerns about inefficiency and fraud eventually forced the government to take further steps by passing the War Charities Act 1916 to regulate the activities of fundraising charities for the first time.

The role of philanthropy vs the role of the State

The example of WWI highlights another important theme: the way in which narratives and opinion about the appropriate role of the state versus that of philanthropy have tended to shift. For example, the National Relief Fund, according to Peter Grant, was a significant precursor for state intervention” and thus “brought the potential of a welfare state a step closer.” The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, meanwhile, was seen as further evidence of the inadequacy of existing voluntary provision. A letter to the London Times in February 1919 decried “the inadequacy of the present voluntary hospital system” in the face of such an emergency, although the author stopped short of concluding that this was reason to accept the need for nationalized healthcare and argued merely that the state should exert a greater degree of “coordinating control.”

Frustration at the failure to follow the lessons of WWI to their logical conclusion when it came to the need for greater state involvement may help to explain the very different response in the UK following WWII. Many of the same debates about state vs philanthropy occurred at this point, accelerated by a shift in power from the Conservatives to Labour. But this time they were answered much more definitively in favour of the state, resulting in the foundation of the modern British welfare state in 1948.

It is worth noting that debates about the relative roles of philanthropy and the state in the UK were not new to the 20th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries, plague epidemics were often a spur for the government to take greater responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. “England learned much about the whole intricate matter of poor relief in the course of protecting the society from the secondary consequences of such epidemics,” wrote W.K. Jordan. “In many parishes the first experience in administering the poor relief was gained in such periods of local disaster.” Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos similarly highlights the fact that special measures introduced for plague years could extend from the imposition of special rates for distribution among the needy at a local level all the way up to parliamentary legislation stipulating national criteria for plague relief (as was introduced in 1604).

Policies of this kind could result in public attitudes regarding the responsibility of the state shifting significantly too. The policy of forced isolation employed by Tudor and Stuart governments to combat the spread of plague was regarded by the poor as “an act of extreme cruelty” according to Benjamin Kirkman Grey; there was a widespread view that the quid pro quo for this infringement of liberty should be for the state to provide for the basic needs of those forced into seclusion. These arguments were sometimes successful and gave rise to some of the earliest examples of a limited form of taxation-funded welfare spending in which, as Charles Creighton details, compensation to the inmates of plague-isolated households would be paid out of municipal funds.

The impact of the perceived causes of pandemics on philanthropy

Perceptions of the cause of crises are often very important in determining the appropriate philanthropic response. In the 16th and 17th century, for instance, plague was not thought to be a medical problem but a religious one. It was seen, according to Paul Slack, as “a divine scourge, a retribution for the sins of mankind: sometimes for sins in general, more often for the specific misdeeds of the time or place of an epidemic.” One of the sins in question was a lack of Christian charity towards one’s fellow man. In 1537, in his introduction to an English translation of a sermon by the German ecclesiastic Osiander, for instance, Miles Coverdale remarked that in his opinion the period of plague in London during the early 16th century was due to negligence on the part of the populace in their duty of charity to one another.

Hence the role of charity in plague responses was not only a practical one of providing aid and assistance but, as Patrick Wallis argues, also a spiritual one. Religious rituals to appease God directly, as well as charitable efforts to demonstrate that the afflicted populace had seen the error of their ways and were willing to atone for their sins, were of far greater importance to most at the time than the provision of medical assistance to the sick. Maintaining this spirit of charity was made more difficult, however, by the fact that many of the precautions recommended against plague—such as not visiting sick neighbours or attending funerals—ran directly counter to the fundamentals of what would be understood as charitable behaviour at the time, as Paul Slack notes.

Poverty, Power & Inequality

Epidemics and other crises of similar scale affect everyone; but in most cases do not do so equally. During plague epidemics two common responses (which were reflected in official advice) were to take flight from infected areas and to focus solely on the preservation of self and family at the expense of more distant relations, dependents or neighbours. But whilst those in the middle and upper classes might have had somewhere else to go or the luxury of not having to rely on the community around them on a day-to-day basis, for the poor these were not really options. Likewise medical care (or what passed for it in the early modern period) was only available to those with the means to pay. As dramatist Thomas Lodge noted in 1604, “Where the infestion most rageth there povertie raigneth among the commons, which having no supplies to satisfie the greedy desire of theose that should attend them, are for the most part left desolate and die without releife”.

The stark disparities between rich and poor in times of plague could have an effect on reshaping the understanding of the nature of poverty. As W.K. Jordan has argued, “these frightful visitations of epidemic taught the nation much regarding its own resources and disciplined it in the understanding that the poverty bred by plague must be instantly relieved lest even more terrible social consequences should ensue. Indeed it is not too much to say that men had come to understand that poverty itself was a kind of plague, epidemic in the industrial society.” Outbreaks of plague therefore highlighted the limitations of relying on voluntary welfare provision to address the symptoms of poverty and lent weight to the nascent view that efforts to tackle poverty should be predicated on the idea that it is primarily a structural issue rather than a matter of individual moral failure.

The role that philanthropy plays in crises and how that relates to issues of power and inequality is often complex. Looking outside Europe, the example of women’s volunteering in Winnipeg, Canada during the 1918-19 flu documented by Esyllt Jones is fascinating in this regard. It highlights the fact that philanthropy can be both a tool for maintaining and protecting existing social dynamics and hierarchies and also a means to break down societal divisions and establish new norms. The middle-class women who largely drove volunteerism in the city, Jones writes, “attempted to embed the project with their own sense of class and ethnic distinction, and to shape it into an embodiment of social order and stability.” But at the same time, she also notes that the often-uncomfortable social interactions that occurred during the epidemic, between women who would otherwise never meet, led to “a heightened sense of community (that blurred the boundaries of class and ethnicity) and emotional bonds between volunteer and victim.”

Today and tomorrow

Looking to the past cannot, of course, tell us what is going to happen during the current crisis—which may well be unprecedented in nature and scale—or in the days to follow. But what it can do is highlight the sorts of themes those of us interested in philanthropy should be thinking about. How do we balance philanthropic freedom with the desire to ensure charitable activity is rationally organised? What impact does our perception of the nature of an epidemic have on our philanthropic response? Do crises help to redress power imbalances or exacerbate them? How do we understand the relationship between philanthropy and the state? These are questions that have arisen in one form or another during many previous times of crisis, and as we consider philanthropy’s role in the response to covid-19 and look beyond to the future, we will need to grapple with them once again.

-Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies is Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), and also leads Giving Thought – CAF’s in-house think tank focusing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. He is the author of Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain, which traces the history of philanthropy in Britain and what it tells us about the modern context.


Ben-Amos, I.K., 2008. The Culture of Giving: Informal Support and Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Creighton, C., 1894. A History of Epidemics in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, P. 2011. “Voluntary Action in the First World War” in McKay, J. and Hilton, M. eds., 2011. The ages of voluntarism: How we got to the Big Society. Oxford University Press.

Gray, B.K., 1905. A History of English Philanthropy: From the Dissolution of the Monasteries to the taking of the First Census. PS King & son.

Jones, E., 2002. “Contact across a diseased boundary: urban space and social interaction during Winnipeg’s influenza epidemic, 1918-1919.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Société historique du Canada, 13(1), pp.119-139.

Jordan, W. K., 1959. Philanthropy in England, 1480–1660. London: George Allen and Unwin

Lindemann, M., 1990. Patriots and Paupers: Hamburg, 1712-1830. Oxford University Press.

Lodge, T., 1603. “A Treatise of the Plague”. The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, 4.

Slack, P., 1988. “Responses to plague in early modern Europe: the implications of public health”. Social Research, pp. 433-453.

Wallis, P., 2006. “Plagues, morality and the place of medicine in early modern England”. The English Historical Review, 121 (490), pp.1-24.

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