By Gail Picco (September 18, 2020)
The reputation of philanthropy since 1750: Britain and beyond, Hugh Cunningham, Manchester University Press, June 16, 2020, 232 pp.
With the recent release of Proof Strategies CanTrust Index suggesting only 50% of Canadians trust charities, it might be a timely moment to dip into Hugh Cunningham’s The reputation of philanthropy since 1750: Britain and beyond, published in June.
To be precise, charities and philanthropy are not the same thing. Charities are the recipients of the philanthropic gesture and have a whole host of other means to cause distrust among citizens. But philanthropy, having experienced a sort of beautification at the beginning of the 21st century is currently suffering a bit of a backlash, much like hedge fund managers did in the late 20th century captured in joyful send up at the hands of Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities.
And Hugh Cunningham, Emeritus Professor of Social History at the University of Kent, might just be the man for the job. He has spent his career in the study of childhood, philanthropy and charity
Professor Cunningham is certainly not in want of fodder. Twentieth century philanthropy—much like the industrial revolution—was not without its distractors alongside the huge accumulation of wealth.
From the oil-soaked Rockefeller fortune generated by “Standard Oil, infamous for its monopolistic practices” to the opioid-peddling, museum-naming Sackler Family, the history of philanthropy from the turn of the twentieth century is, Cunningham reports, at least in part a history of the growth of the philanthropic foundations.
“And the biggest foundations were in the United States.”
It wasn’t without a fight.
The establishment of the Rockefeller Foundation, which required an Act of Congress, occurred amid a storm of controversy. One line of argument against creating foundations was taken up by then former US president Theodore Roosevelt who said,
‘no amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them’.
Equally challenging, writes Cunningham in The reputation of philanthropy, was the argument that the foundation existing in perpetuity, and unaccountable except to handpicked trustees ‘must be repugnant to the whole idea of a democratic society’ and ‘a menace to the welfare of society’.
US president Theodore Roosevelt served from 1901 to 1909.
“From 1909 to 1913 Rockefeller tried but failed to win the requisite support in Congress,” writes Cunningham. “It was eventually the New York state legislature that approved the setting up of the Foundation.’
So, here we are today.
Thousands of philanthropic foundations sit on growing piles of tax-credited money to whose use, thus far, has primarily been in the cause of the philanthropists themselves.
The most fundamental shift in philanthropy came with the growth of large personal fortunes after the American Civil War. Up until that point, institutions supporting the anti-slavery movement to university funding were imported from Europe, says Cunningham.
“‘Suddenly, philanthropy was reinterpreted as big gifts, eclipsing the historically embedded significance of collective giving and voluntarism.’
Philanthropy ‘was recast as an American invention.’”
The turn of the 21st century brought another burst of large personal fortunes,
“… wealth that accumulated in private hands enabled Americans to do philanthropy on a scale that other countries could not match. Only in the twenty-first century did critics begin to question the role of the escalating number of foundations and of other vehicles for philanthropy.”
Today, the make-over of philanthropy is complete. The inherent goodness its practitioners bestowed on themselves is accepted by all but a few.
The largest private foundations across the globe, ‘existing in perpetuity, and unaccountable except to handpicked trustees’ hold assets larger than the GDP of many countries. The MasterCard Foundation, registered in Canada, has assets of 23.7 billion, more than the GDP of 85 countries in the world.
In the history Professor Cunningham so carefully and delightfully recreates for us, it becomes ever more clear that, as philanthropy has cloaked itself in inherent goodness and charities have done the same, they not only disconnect themselves from the most pressing problems of our time, they actively contribute to those problems.
Gail Picco is the editor in chief of The Charity Report.
Other reviews by Gail Picco
Rachel Maddow: On the biggest stories of the day May 8, 2020
Feeling that you belong (or not) March 6, 2020
One of the best books ever written in the English language February 22, 2020
How far up the river do you really want to go? January 28, 2020
On the Block for 2020: The Truth January 14, 2020