United States of Givers

Article excerpt

PHILANTHROPY IN AMERICA: A History.

By Olivier Zunz.

Princeton Univ. Press.

381 pp. $29.95

DESPITE THE SLUGGISH economy, Americans gave a staggering $290 billion to charity in 2010. There is no shortage of causes clamoring for our attention--and our dollars. Philanthropic drives and organizations are woven into the fabric of American life. In Philanthropy in America, Olivier Zunz, a historian at the University of Virginia, has written a lucid and engaging story of how this came to be. He focuses on the 20th century, when Americans transformed their prolific, but mostly localized, efforts to form groups for addressing all manner of problems into philanthropy on a much larger scale, measured not only in the amount of money and numbers of people involved, but also in the scope of what such enterprises tried to achieve. American democracy has been "enlarged," Zunz writes, by this "convergence of big-money philanthropy and mass giving." The question is whether 21st-century philanthropy can withstand the growing chorus of criticism that has resulted.

One factor in this transformation was the rise of large American foundations in the early 20th century. Rich funders, such as John D. Rockefeller, and social reformers, such as education activist Abraham Flexner, formed alliances to address the root causes of impoverishment rather than give alms directly to the poor. The new allies gradually dismantled common-law doctrines that had limited donors to making gifts for narrow purposes, and during the Progressive Era, the great foundations-Rockefeller, Carnegie, Russell Sage--embarked on large-scale programs in fields ranging from scientific research to the rebuilding of the South.

At the same time, Americans' old-fashioned idea of charity as alms for the poor evolved into the concept of philanthropy as a "search for the common good." Zunz lays out the markers of this trend: the founding of community chests such as the United Way, the rise of professional fundraising, and the beginning of nationwide campaigns to amass money for the eradication of diseases such as tuberculosis.

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Hovering over the great convergence was the question of the role government should play when donors claimed that they too could legitimately address public interests. As Zunz sees it, the presidency of Herbert Hoover gave one answer, when he asked private philanthropy to deliver social services to the unemployed during the deepening Depression, without much assistance from government. The New Deal offered another: Harry Hopkins, as head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, decided that if funds gathered through taxation were to be distributed to American citizens, government would do the job. …