Philanthropy in America: A History

By Schatteman, Alicia | Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Philanthropy in America: A History


Schatteman, Alicia, Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research


Philanthropy in America: A History. By Olivier Zunz. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012. 396 pp. ISBN: 9780691128368

Philanthropy: Not made in America but remade decidedly American. The first question one might ask when confronting a book with such a scope as this one is why take on describing and analyzing philanthropy in America almost since its inception? To ask this question, however, is to miss the point, as Philanthropy is much more than a chronology from the 18th century to today. Instead, Zunz has woven social commentary along with the evolutionary tale of philanthropy, consciously tying this story to where we are today. The purpose of the book is to tell the story of how philanthropy in America began as a tale of the incredibly wealthy, but slowly evolved into mass philanthropy, involving Americans of all means. This book also deals with how the nonprofit sector developed, which the author describes as a partnership from its earliest beginnings between government and philanthropy, a hybrid of capitalism. The work is academic in terms of the rigour of research but written in a language and style accessible to all readers.

The book is divided into nine chapters, with an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are written chronologically, beginning with the post-Civil War era. The author describes how personal wealth had grown quickly, creating more than 4,000 millionaires for the first time ever. John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Henry Ford were in fact billionaires by 1916. Individuals with such vast wealth had the means to contribute to philanthropic institutions. They had lofty ambitions, such as improving mankind, but also had the means to make progress towards that goal. It was the era of infrastructure development, with the building of many prestigious institutions, like libraries, museums, hospitals, and universities. Reformers and the new philanthropists worked together to address large social problems instead of doing typical charity work.

One of the most important creations from this era was the "foundation," as a way to centralize donations and then distribute those funds across various organizations and for a variety of causes. The foundation, Zunz argues, is an American invention created as a result of the incredible wealth realized around the turn of the 20th century. Foundations have radically changed the philanthropic landscape, both in the United States and around the world. Private foundations such as the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation reflected, and still reflect, the personal priorities of the donor.

As new forms of philanthropy were invented in the US and abroad, there was also a shifttoward funding to address larger public problems, such as public health. World War I brought to light many health issues which could be addressed with a concentration of resources and the dedication and interest of a broad and engaged community. Philanthropists supported sanitation schemes and a number of disease prevention initiatives associated with hookworm, malaria, yellow fever, hunger, and influenza.

Zunz points out that most of these new ideas about philanthropy were predominantly evident in the northern United States. But what about the south? Philanthropists and reformers alike both felt that universal access to education was the key to solving the race relations crisis. Yet, without a vote, and therefore without political power, reformers could not raise the political capital to provide tax money for black education. Instead, philanthropists had to work to garner funds that were outside political control. This is just one example of how Zunz takes us on a journey of self-reflection and illuminates a nearly forgotten history of giving, sacrifice, and perseverance.

Zunz then traces the development of mass philanthropy, with the expansion of the ideal of giving to the middle and working classes. …

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