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Philanthropy: Made in America

Posted by Josh Rothman  December 12, 2011 05:15 PM

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Charitable giving, as Leon Neyfakh showed in the Ideas section earlier this month, is a personal, emotional, irrational affair. What does that make philanthropy -- the giving away of huge sums by the very rich? In Philanthropy in America, Olivier Zunz, a historian at the University of Virginia, tells the story of the invention of philanthropy. It was here in the United States, he shows, that the emotional impulse to give was first connected to corporate management, and carried out on a large scale.

Andrew Carnegie

The very rich have always given money to charity -- but they haven't always done it in such an organized and ambitious way. Philanthropy had to be invented first, Zunz explains, in the late nineteenth century, by a unique generation of American businessmen and their wives, widows, and children. Andrew Carnegie was among the first to realize that he could manage his charitable giving the same way he managed his companies, and on the same scale. Instead of randomly giving money to this or that cause, Carnegie set up an open-ended foundation, run by professional managers with business experience. He and others like him started taking on government-sized projects -- building school systems, starting universities, defeating diseases, and even encouraging world peace.

What makes American philanthropy unique, Zunz argues, is its combination of Carnegie-scale organization with individual participation. Today, millions of Americans give not to just to local schools or church organizations, but to huge, corporation-like non-profits. Individuals still donate canned food to local homeless shelters, but they also band together to pursue large-scale goals, like curing breast cancer. When this kind of collaboration was invented, Zunz writes, it was a wholly new phenomenon. It was enabled, in part, by governmental enthusiasm: Recognizing the power of the model, regulators began making space for tax-exempt, non-profit corporations, seeing them as a way of harnessing the ingenuity and energy of the market for social good.

Today, Zunz writes, America's non-profit sector is uniquely huge -- it employs 10% of the workforce, and its combined budget is larger than the Pentagon's. It's being replicated around the world, and used to combat global problems. Philanthropy, Zunz argues, is one of the most important American inventions of the twentieth century.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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