A Quick Take on Olivier Zunz’s Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton, 2012)

posted on: January 3, 2012

In his fine, concise, and just-published history, Olivier Zunz identifies and assesses most of the important strands of U.S. philanthropy in the 20th century , including the invention and spread of the peculiarly American all-purpose “general welfare” foundation such as the Carnegie Corporation and Rockefeller Foundation; philanthropy’s collaborative yet tense relationship with the state; the growth and permutations of “mass philanthropy” such as community foundations and nonprofits like the American Cancer Society; and philanthropy’s role in the domestic fight against infectious disease, the Great Depression, world wars, the Cold War, Jim Crow, aid for developing countries, and other major developments of “The American Century.”

Zunz succeeds especially well in tracing the legal and regulatory evolution of philanthropy and also in showing that many of the questions we in the sector debate today have in fact been around for a long time, albeit it in shifting guises.

I offer here only a quick take on Zunz’s history and not a “book review” because I boast no mastery of the historiography of U.S. philanthropy (I wish Zunz had included a historiographical essay in his own book). The only two histories of this topic I have read are Joel Fleishman’s The Foundation: A Great American Secret (2009) and Mark Dowie’s Foundations: An Investigative History (2002). In terms of his overall assessment of the utility of U.S. philanthropy, Zunz occupies a middle ground between Fleishman’s frequent cheerleading and Dowie’s occasional hypercriticism.

Inevitably, a concise overview of such a vast topic – even one as thoughtful as Zunz’s — must omit some big questions. Zunz passes over two related big questions, which I hope future historians of this topic will examine.

The whole tenor of Zunz’s story is that philanthropy, whatever its warts, has been an overwhelmingly positive force in America. Yet, he also points out how private philanthropy was a poor substitute for government action in overcoming most of the big social and political problems of that era. For example, private philanthropy was able to muster only tiny resources compared to those of government and therefore played a small role in such epochal events as the American effort in World War I (p.60), the battle against unemployment during the Great Depression (p.117 ff.), funding basic scientific research (p. 179), and aiding developing countries (p.293), among other challenges.

Zunz does not clearly enough answer the question he himself raises: if U.S. philanthropy failed to play a significant role in solving most of the biggest problems Americans faced in the 20th century, why does he seem to celebrate it? Zunz’s answer seems to be that philanthropy’s value stems not only from its (limited) impact on the recipients of charity but also on the givers, and in particular on the broad masses of regular Americans who, by donating hard-earned dollars to community foundations and groups like the American Lung Association, helped and continue to help weave a vibrant civil society (see esp. p.7 and p.299).

But in an America of Bowling Alone and of anemic rates of political participation, a claim that the U.S. nourishes a vibrant civil society needs to be proved, not asserted. And even if Zunz could prove it, he would still have to justify philanthropy’s enormous cost to the U.S. Treasury due to the federal tax deduction for charitable donations and nonpayment of income tax by nonprofit organizations. If those dollars were to flow into the U.S. Treasury, they would be available for systematic government efforts to tackle big, systemic challenges. That philanthropy (and its intrinsically scattershot approach to solving such problems) is worth this massive taxpayer subsidy is not at all a settled matter – especially in era of big budget deficits. This is an elephant in the room that Zunz does not clearly acknowledge.

Personally, I do not believe U.S. philanthropy is currently worth the taxpayer subsidy. But it would be worth it if, as counseled by NCRP and others, it were to shift a bigger share of its grantmaking from charitable service provision (which is more effectively delivered by government) to advocacy so as to empower marginalized communities and thereby attack the root causes of social problems.

Second, why is Zunz’s regard for U.S. philanthropy so high even though during the past 35 years the U.S. has fallen behind too many other advanced countries on the most important metrics of well-being, such as upward social mobility, income inequality, aggregate public health, aggregate educational achievement, median leisure time, Smart Growth, fostering the arts, etc. Had Zunz acknowledged this second elephant in the room, it might have led him to ask whether there is a causal link between the peculiar American “small government/big philanthropy” paradigm and American underperformance in the key metrics above. On the one hand, Americans believe more than do counterparts in other advanced countries that voluntary association (not government) is the preferred means to overcome social problems. On the other hand, the U.S. also lags behind too many of these same countries in overcoming most of these same problems. The singular American faith in (though not necessarily practice of) voluntary association cries out for a critical and transnational perspective – not an unexamined endorsement.

A transnational perspective also would have shed light on the Bowling Alone question. As somebody who has spent a fair amount of time studying and living in western Europe, my impression (which admittedly I can’t prove empirically) is that the French, Germans, British etc. are more (not less) associational than Americans. Moreover, I fail to see how collective action through nonprofit organizations weaves a healthier civil society than collective action through a democratically elected government. But Zunz does not examine this question, let alone in comparative perspective. Instead, he hazily presents American civil society, with no external reference points, as generally a picture of Tocquevillean health and seems to give U.S. philanthropy (especially mass philanthropy) a lot of credit for this alleged vigor.

But enough nitpicking. A history of such a huge subject – especially one as admirably concise as Zunz’s — must necessarily ignore a few big questions. This book is a must-read for any practitioner or student of philanthropy; and I recommend it as well to serious students of general U.S. history. But while I readily admit that my criticisms above of Zunz’s book amount to quibbling, I do appeal to future historians of U.S. philanthropy to adopt a more transnational perspective, which hopefully would help reduce some of Americans’ naïve faith in charity over government and self-congratulation for our supposedly healthy civil society — and in so doing oblige us to acknowledge a less comforting truth.

Sean Dobson is field director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).