Philanthropy in America: A History

Philanthropy in America: A History

Philanthropy in America: A History

Philanthropy in America: A History


American philanthropy today expands knowledge, champions social movements, defines active citizenship, influences policymaking, and addresses humanitarian crises. How did philanthropy become such a powerful and integral force in American society? Philanthropy in America is the first book to explore in depth the twentieth-century growth of this unique phenomenon. Ranging from the influential large-scale foundations established by tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and the mass mobilization of small donors by the Red Cross and March of Dimes, to the recent social advocacy of individuals like Bill Gates and George Soros, respected historian Olivier Zunz chronicles the tight connections between private giving and public affairs, and shows how this union has enlarged democracy and shaped history.

Zunz looks at the ways in which American philanthropy emerged not as charity work, but as an open and sometimes controversial means to foster independent investigation, problem solving, and the greater good. Andrew Carnegie supported science research and higher education, catapulting these fields to a prominent position on the world stage. In the 1950s, Howard Pew deliberately funded the young Billy Graham to counter liberal philanthropies, prefiguring the culture wars and increased philanthropic support for religious causes. And in the 1960s, the Ford Foundation supported civil rights through education, voter registration drives, and community action programs. Zunz argues that American giving allowed the country to export its ideals abroad after World War II, and he examines the federal tax policies that unified the diverse nonprofit sector.

Demonstrating that America has cultivated and relied on philanthropy more than any other country, Philanthropy in America examines how giving for the betterment of all became embedded in the fabric of the nation's civic democracy.


“To spend money is easy, to spend it well is hard,” wrote economist Wesley Mitchell in the pages of the American Economic Review in 1912, elaborating on the “backward art of spending money” that characterized most American’s. Mitchell contrasted the American consumer’s “ignorance” with the big industrialist’s efficient expenditure based upon accumulated empirical knowledge. As the founding director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a think tank the newly created Commonwealth Fund bankrolled in 1919, Mitchell soon became the beneficiary of another kind of expenditure that reflected the exploratory habit of mind of some contemporary industrialists and other American’s of means. They were investing large sums in new philanthropic foundations and endowments designed to foster social progress in which they believed.

Andrew Carnegie, who conducted large-scale philanthropy with the same obsession with which he streamlined steel operations, remembered late in his life the day when he “resolved to stop accumulating” and began “the infinitely more serious and difficult task” of what he termed “wise distribution.” Certainly, he wanted everybody to know that he had reached his decision to become a philanthropist as a matter of duty. In his own words, he was following a “gospel of wealth” that obligated him to return to society what he had taken, but he was determined to do so by following the same intelligent managerial principles that had made him a rich man. Carnegie’s approach to philanthropy gained currency. Over the course of the next century, philanthropists and their advisers followed in Carnegie’s footsteps, perfecting the art of spending money for the common good.

Carnegie and his peers clearly felt exhilaration at putting their fortunes to work for large causes at home and abroad. They enjoyed . . .

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