Philanthropy: Sister, Can You Spare A Dime?

Philanthropy: Sister, Can You Spare A Dime?

The word philanthropy is from the Ancient Greek phil “love of” and anthrōpos “humankind.” In the second century CE, Plutarch used the Greek concept of philanthrôpía to describe superior human beings. Then, during the Middle Ages, philanthrôpía was superseded across Europe by Christianity and the Christian virtue of charity (Latin: caritas); selfless love–valued for salvation and escape from purgatory–for oneself. Which doesn’t seem very selfless to me.

Anyway, parochial and civic charities grew over time, established by bequests and operated by local church parishes or guilds. During the 18th century, however, a more activist Protestant tradition of direct charitable engagement took hold—for example, in 1739, appalled by the number of abandoned children living on the streets of London, Thomas Coram received a royal charter in England to establish the Foundling Hospital to look after the orphans, and that set the pattern for incorporating associational charities in general.

Things became more openly political when William Wilberforce, a prominent British philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner, entered the picture. Philanthropists began to adopt active roles, championing causes and lobbying governments for legislative change, against ill treatment of children and of animals, for instance. The Wilberforce campaign famously succeeded in ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire, beginning in 1807. Although no slavery was allowed in Britain itself, though, many rich men owned sugar plantations in the West Indies, resisting the movement to buy them out until 1833.

In 1863 the Swiss businessman Henry Dunant used his fortune to fund the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, which was to become the International Committee of the Red Cross. Meanwhile, in France, the Pasteur institute had a monopoly of specialized microbiological knowledge that allowed it to raise money for serum production from both private and public sources, walking a tightrope between commercial pharmaceutical venture and philanthropic enterprise. The Rockefeller Foundation opened an office in Paris, helping to design and fund France’s modern public health system.

The history of modern philanthropy in Europe is especially important in the case of Germany, which became a model for others regarding the welfare state. Princes in various imperial states continued traditional philanthropic efforts (many self-aggrandizing): buildings, parks, art collections. But starting in the early 19th century the middle classes made local philanthropy a major endeavor to establish that they had their own legitimate role in shaping society, in contrast to the military and the aristocracy. They concentrated on support for social welfare institutions, higher education, and cultural institutions.

Religion was a divisive element, though, especially in Germany, since Protestants and Catholics used alternative philanthropic strategies. Catholics persisted in the practice of bequeathing financial donations in wills to lighten punishment in purgatory after death. Protestants made a strong commitment to the improvement of their communities in the NOW. But Conservative Protestants raised concerns about deviant sexuality, alcoholism, and socialism, as well as so-called illegitimate births. They used philanthropy to try to eradicate what they considered social evils that were perceived as sinful. (Sound familiar?)

Meanwhile, in a leap back in time, we find that the first philanthropic corporation founded in the 13 colonies was Harvard College in 1636, designed primarily to train young men (sic) for the clergy. Cotton Mather, the famous (or infamous, if you count the Salem trials for witchcraft) Puritan, in 1710 published a widely read article, “Bonifacius, or an essay to do good.” Concerned that idealism had eroded, he advocated philanthropic benefaction as a way of life. Benjamin Franklin was an American philanthropy activist, influenced both by Mather and by Daniel Defoe’s book An Essay on Projects. Franklin tried to motivate other Philadelphians into projects for bettering the city, including the library company of Philadelphia (the first American subscription library), the fire department, police force, street lighting, and a hospital. He also promoted scientific organizations like the Philadelphia Academy, which became the University of Pennsylvania.

By the 1820s, newly rich American businessmen were initiating philanthropic work with respect to private colleges and hospitals. George Peabody was acknowledged as the father of modern philanthropy, a financier based in Baltimore and London in the 1860s; he endowed libraries and museums in the United States and funded housing for poor people in London, and his activities in turn became the model for Andrew Carnegie and others. In the early 20th century Carnegie was the most influential leader of philanthropy on a national scale. He financed over 1800 libraries across the US; his final and largest project was the Carnegie Corporation of New York, founded in 1911; he gave away 90 percent of his fortune.

Other prominent early 20th century American philanthropists included John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald, and Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, widow of robber baron Russell Sage. At his death in 1906, she inherited a fortune estimated at more than $63 million, to be used at her discretion. An unusual phenomenon, a woman open about being in the field of philanthropy this early, Sage was a former teacher. She strongly supported education, established the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, and founded Russell Sage College as well as endowing programs for women. More about the role of women in philanthropy below.

Meanwhile, the Rockefeller Foundation was making large scale national philanthropy systematic, especially regarding the study and application of modern medicine and scientific research. It opened offices in Europe, launched scientific projects in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, and supported health projects of the League of Nations. Finally, with the acquisition of most of the stock of the Ford Motor Company in the late 1940s, the Ford Foundation became the largest American philanthropy, splitting its activities between the United States and the rest of the world. Outside the US, it established a network of human rights organizations, promoted democracy, gave large numbers of fellowships for young leaders to study in the US, and invested deeply in the “green revolution,” whereby poor countries dramatically increased their output of rice, wheat, and other foods. Both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were heavily involved in building research universities around the world.

It should be noted that religions in differing cultures have their own concepts of philanthropy: countries such as Indonesia are bound by the Muslim concept of zakat which means alms giving; in India corporate social responsibility or CSR is now mandated, with 2 percent of net profits directed towards charity. In terms of individual wealth and philanthropy, Asia is home to the majority of the world’s billionaires, surpassing the United States and Europe in 2017, with three Asian economies in the top 10: 698 in China, 237 in India, and 71 in Hong Kong as of 2021.

Traditional philanthropy and impact investment are distinguished by how they serve society. Traditional philanthropy is usually short term, where organizations obtain resources for causes through fundraising and one-off donations. Impact investment on the other hand focuses on the interaction between individual well-being and broader society through the promotion of sustainability stressing the importance of, for example, housing infrastructure, health care, and energy. A preference for impact investment philanthropy is gaining prominence in the sustainable development goals of the United Nations since 2015, and almost every SDG is linked to environmental protection and sustainability because of rising concerns about globalization, consumerism, and population growth.

Last but hardly least, philanthro-capitalism differs from traditional philanthropy in that it is affected by business in the market, where profit-oriented business models deliver, for example, curricula in education and strengthen their own businesses while improving people’s job prospects–but by doing so they benefit themselves in hiring those people, who in turn generate more profits. In this, philanthropy is seen as a tool to sustain economic growth based on human capital theory. There’s also a philanthro-capitalism where instead of being for profit, the philanthropist gives as a nonprofit and only breaks even or takes a small loss, but the overall gain to the community is greater than the loss incurred. And of course there’s celebrity philanthropy. Moreover, philanthropy has been transformed by the rise of multi-billionaires like Jeff Bezos, George Soros, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, etc.

It isn’t news that philanthropy has been deployed by ultra high net-worth individuals to offset their large tax liabilities through charitable contribution deductions enabled by the tax code. For instance, despite Robert F. Smith’s generosity in paying off student debt incurred by the Morehouse College class of 2019, he simultaneously battled changes to the tax code that would have made more money available to help low income students pay for college in the first place. We might term this form of giving “donate a little with lots of publicity, reap lots of return on your investment behind the scenes.”

As a result, much criticism of philanthropic institutions and individuals swirls around their reinforcement of the prevailing status quo, and that they perpetuate income inequality instead of addressing the root cause of social issues.

The Global Policy Forum, an independent policy watchdog that monitors activities of the UN General Assembly, warned governments and international organizations that they must “assess the growing influence of major philanthropic foundations, and especially the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and analyze the intended and unintended risks and side effects of their activities” prior to accepting money from rich donors.

Philanthropy from the super wealthy also manages to distract the public from many of the ill-gotten gains derived for profit from the marketplace. Yet it’s direly needed–for survival, in many cases. So what to do?

In general, unless philanthropy is involved with fostering the recipients’ self-sufficiency, independence, autonomy, and sustainable control of resources–that is, empowerment–it is likely to turn into yet another way of perpetuating oppressive and highly unequal status. Simply put, when philanthropy puts its thumb on the scale of self-interest more than of giving, we’re already in trouble. That was true of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages selling papal indulgences and bestowing charity to avoid purgatory in hell, and it’s true today with philanthropic capitalism, e.g. the exposure of Purdue Pharma in encouraging the opioid epidemic and then donating some profits to great museums in the US and abroad, resulting in the British National Portrait Gallery and the Guggenheim announcing their rejection of Purdue charitable giving.

This at least telegraphs a shift in consciousness about philanthropy and, one hopes, telegraphs the direction of philanthropy in the future. Which may well be female.

Unsurprisingly, female philanthropists have been deeply involved in every movement, campaign, or wave for the liberation of women down through time immemorial. Libraries are only now being written about the philanthropists of the Suffrage Movement, how they gave not just funds but their own energy and dedication. Not that women controlled much money in their own right in those days. Indeed, there were laws in place until the 1970s controlling women’s financial independence. It was the rare woman who had earned–or even been able to earn–her own money, much less her own fortune to dispose of as she wished, as did Madam C. J. Walker, “the first Black woman millionaire in America” who built her wealth in the late 1800s thanks to her homemade line of hair-care products for Black women.

Thanks to feminist historians, we are finally, this late, beginning to unearth the names of women who financed the suffrage movement, the temperance movement, the abolitionist movement, halfway houses for women emerging from prison, the shelter movement, and so on–even such groups as the Salvation Army and Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in a reversal of philanthrocapitalism, women benefactors mobilized to support every possible cause other than their own for many years before the suffrage movement emerged, sort of ventriloquating their rage and pain into other suffering groups first.

What we know today is that many women of inherited wealth are drawn to feminism for their own liberation, quite understandably: I can think of five women of inherited wealth who were sexually abused by men in their family. Furthermore, fathers who are “giants of industry” patriarchally assume their sons will succeed them, and on board after board of various trustees we find sons and even sons in law being listened to and pegged for inheriting power (as with The New York Times)–while daughters, if allowed to be present at all, are ignored.

Sallie Bingham was one of the first women who refused to sit silently. A serious fine writer herself, she immortalized the story of how she basically brought down a newspaper empire to gain her rights as a female human being in her book, Passion and Prejudice: A Family Memoir. And there are many others. Some decide to devote their support to specific causes: the late Deborah Ann Light focused her funding on women over age 55, thus fostering late-life creativity that others said would never surface. Given the overlapping obstacles, subtle and blatant–of sexism, racism, and ageism–there are more than a few late bloomers using their earned or inherited wealth like laser beams to address particular political oppressions. These women are activists.

All this, you understand, is in addition to the “charitable” giving women traditionally still do for such non-political causes as breast cancer and other diseases, children’s illnesses, causes that especially touched their own lives in personal ways, and of course the arts. In fact, it was considered more fitting until recently for women’s philanthropy to be directed in these more traditional directions than to issues affecting policy that would have an impact on their own lives–but that’s changing fast, as are women’s contributions to political campaigns.

All this evokes new insights into women and wealth: money as power, not to be denied or fled from or feared; peeling way guilt at having money; women decoding finance systems constructed around and above them, often to deliberately exclude them; women learning to demystify donating without being patronizing or condescending or feeling shame or guilt; contrarily, women learning to accept financial support for their causes and work with pride; and the development of advisory groups specifically to aid women’s chosen giving in a multiracial, non-ageist, feminist context, free of sexual categorizations, abelism, class distinctions, and other legacies of patriarchy.

As women learn to grasp and manage their own wealth, such groups and organizations may become less necessary, and the transformation of philanthropy will be a fascinating, liberating one, indeed.

[This blog will be off next week and return the week after.]