We want to learn about what philanthropy has accomplished in the past, and where it’s fallen short of its goals, to inform our picture of what great giving looks like. We believe that philanthropy often operates best on long time horizons, so we especially want to learn from role models whose impact took time to play out. To this end, we’ve reviewed the existing literature on the history of philanthropy, and we are supporting historians to produce more. This page gives more details about the work we’ve supported and what we’ve learned so far.
Why it matters
Reviewing the history of philanthropy has contributed significantly to our picture of what great giving looks like. For example:
- It has made us more ambitious. We are more interested in working on daunting problems over long periods of time after learning about some of philanthropy’s past contributions. We’ve been particularly impressed by the track record of philanthropically funded science. (More on philanthropic success stories here.)
- We’ve learned about the surprisingly (to us) large number of cases where a funder led the creation of a successful new nonprofit, rather than funding someone else’s existing plan.
- We’ve learned about the different roles philanthropic funding can play in policy change, and in particular the possibility of creating change by helping a nascent field grow even when there’s no apparent political opportunity. (More)
The most useful overview we’ve found on the history of philanthropy is the Casebook for The Foundation: A Great American Secret by Joel L. Fleishman, J. Scott Kohler and Steven Schindler, which lists and discusses “100 of the highest-achieving foundation initiatives” since 1900. We summarized our takeaways here. We plan to publish a longer recommended reading list in the future.
Case studies we’ve commissioned
We’ve found surprisingly little existing literature on the history of philanthropy. In particular, we’ve found few in-depth case studies examining questions like what role philanthropists, compared with other actors, played in bringing important changes to pass. To help fill that gap, we are commissioning case studies on past philanthropic success stories, with a focus on cases that seem — at first glance — to be strong examples of philanthropy having a major impact on society. Here are the cases we’ve published so far:
Case study on the Healthcare for the Homeless Program, by Ben Soskis:
- Blog post summary
- Full case study (.docx)
- Full source list (.docx)
- Our internal review of Dr. Soskis’s report (.pdf)
Case study on the Pew Charitable Trusts’ drug safety legislation program, by Tamara Mann Tweel:
Case study on the role of multiple funders in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, by Ben Soskis:
Case study on the founding of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, by Suzanne Kahn:
Case study on the founding of the Center for Global Development, by Ben Soskis:
Case studies we’ve completed
Some case studies in early field growth, by Luke Muehlhauser:
Other work we’ve commissioned
Historian Ben Soskis reviewed the existing literature on the history of philanthropy and created the following resources:
- Annotated bibliography: A list of books he identified as possibly informative. He briefly reviewed each book and summarized its contents.
- Extended bibliography: A list of books he reviewed (covered in the list above); books he considered but did not review; and books he would review if he spent more time on this project.
- Process and findings: The process he used to select books for consideration and his preliminary conclusions about the state of the literature.
We have also commissioned reviews of the existing literature on several particular cases of philanthropic impact:
- Healthcare reform (.docx), by Ben Soskis
- Tobacco reform (.docx), by Ben Soskis
- The Healthcare for the Homeless program (.docx), by Ben Soskis
- The Nunn-Lugar Act (.docx), by Ben Soskis
- The emergence of climate change as a governance issue (.pdf), by Bentley Allan. (Also see our notes from a conversation with Dr. Allan.)
Grants in this area
We are making grants to promote work on the history of philanthropy. A list of those grants is available via our grants database.