Philanthropy in America: A History

By Newell, Jonathan | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Philanthropy in America: A History


Newell, Jonathan, Journal of Markets & Morality


Philanthropy in America: A History

Olivier Zunz

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012 (381 pages)

The recent flap over the Susan G. Komen Foundation and funding for Planned Parenthood thrust the role and function of the ubiquitous nonprofit institution back into the public spotlight. While the debate raged over whether or not the organization should be involved in making politically loaded decisions, it soon became evident that the whole discussion lacked a sense of context, both in the history and in the role of nonprofits in social issues. Olivier Zunz's Philanthropy in America: A History provides that needed context, tracing the developments of the American philanthropic movement along with the social and governmental issues that have arisen with it.

Zunz begins the story by looking at the rise of US industrial giants at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. The concentration of immense amounts of wealth and power in the hands of individuals raised new questions about the ethical responsibilities that came with the wealth. Many of this new wealthy class took it upon themselves to use their resources to solve basic social problems. Despite the irony that their wealth had been created on the basis of many of these ills, they began using capitalistic and managerial models for the disbursement of funds, separating the idea of philanthropy from its historical link to religious charity and moving it further into the realm of business and, eventually, of government.

The subsequent chapters of Zunz's work concentrate on the evolving relationship between government and this new concept of philanthropy. He details how the current nonprofit sector as understood by many Americans is the result of years of compromises, conflicts, and implicit and explicit agreements by government leaders and wealthy business interests. While the work tackles this concept in an overall chronological scheme, Zunz tells the story in a thematic manner, highlighting people and events that represent major changes during historical eras of the twentieth century. Despite the challenges of working with a diverse cast of characters, ranging from Herbert Hoover to Margaret Sanger to Henry Ford II, Zunz masterfully shows how each one has contributed to the current concept of American philanthropy.

Zunz also shows how movements swayed the course of philanthropy. While many associate such work with peaceful causes, much of the foundational work of shaping a collective philanthropic sense came from wartime activities. He particularly highlights the First World War, which brought about the idea that giving to the country through programs such as bond drives was a greater means of saving and a higher expression of the virtues of thrift. The collective giving became a tangible way of showing solidarity and patriotism while helping develop a breed of professional fund-raisers and civic organizers. Yet the challenges of the Depression and the Second World War proved too much for the still relatively young philanthropic movement as well as the smaller traditional charities. …

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