Understanding Philanthropy: Its meaning and mission (2008)

Book Review
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Publishing information: 
<p><strong>Robert L. Payton and Michael P. Moody<br /> Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, May 2008. 224pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-253-35049-7&nbsp;</strong><strong> $24.95</strong></p>

Payton and Moody’s book is an extended argument that philanthropy is an interesting and important subject that deserves to be better understood and to be taken more seriously. Apart from the usual gripe from this side of the Atlantic that the authors also take themselves a little too seriously, it does largely fulfil its stated aim, although UK readers should brace themselves for a relentlessly upbeat approach and repetition of the mystifyingly widespread view that America invented philanthropy.

A toe-curling moment appears in the first few pages when a description of an impressive woman named Oseola McCarty who, despite being poor herself, lived frugally and donated a large sum to support needy African-American students at the University of Southern Mississippi, is concluded with the rhetorical question, “Do such things happen in other countries?” Errr, yes! The ‘horizontal philanthropy’ of poor-to-poor is perhaps more universal than the ‘vertical philanthropy’ of rich-to-poor that can only arise in societies containing great inequalities of wealth. Fortunately such patriotic asides desist as the book progresses and are replaced with more thoughtful reflections on the way that unique philanthropic traditions emerge in different societies, dependent on their cultural and historical contexts.

Much of the first half of the book revolves around defining key terms and dissecting the differences between apparent synonyms such as ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy’. Having successfully cleared a path through the thicket of definitional tangles, the book moves onto meatier questions regarding the rationale for philanthropy’s existence, its relationship to other forms of assistance and the practicalities of undertaking philanthropic action.

Whilst the authors, being openly pro-philanthropic, are clear that philanthropy is the answer, they do not shy from addressing the obvious retort, ‘what is the question?’ In a beautiful demonstration of Occam’s Razor (the principle which states the best theories are those expressed most succinctly and simply), the authors argue that, “Philanthropy exists because of two truths about the human condition: things often go wrong and things could always be better”. The philanthropic tradition is then described as the history of the response to these two facts.

Grand claims are made about the possibilities inherent in philanthropic action, with philanthropy variously described as essential to democracy, the locus of society’s moral agenda and “our best hope to make the world better”. Yet the authors readily acknowledge the existence of alternative responses when things go wrong and situations need to be improved. Self-help, mutual aid and government assistance are discussed as options to be considered before initiating a philanthropic response. The aftermath of the terror acts of 9/11 is used to demonstrate the happy co-existence of all four types of response whilst Hurricane Katrina is offered as proof that sometimes philanthropy is all that can fill voids created when people have no resources to help themselves and government lacks the capacity or will to respond adequately; in such cases “philanthropy makes sense because all else has failed or because other responses will take too long or are incomplete”.

Whilst government and market failure often feature in theories of the voluntary sector – implying that philanthropy is the ‘fall-back option’ – this book usefully highlights that philanthropic acts have a positive comparative advantage because they are defined by morality, whereas governments are defined by ‘power’ and business by ‘wealth’. Such sweeping generalisations inevitably invite debate; many people enter politics to implement moral ideas and many businesspeople-turned-philanthropists would argue that wealth creation was a necessary precursor to their later generosity. But defining the ‘big idea’ of each sector in such stark terms enables the authors to develop stimulating ideas around the notion that philanthropy is the expression of the ‘moral imagination’ and a means for individuals to shape and advance the moral agenda of society.

Whilst this all sounds rather abstract, philanthropists will find much of practical use in a chapter on the practicalities of undertaking philanthropic action that acknowledges the perils of attempting to intervene voluntarily in other people’s lives for their benefit. The authors begin by pointing out the difficulties in abiding by two apparently opposed social norms – that we should help others and that we should also mind our own business – and suggests these can be reconciled with the help of three guiding principles. Firstly, ‘seek to do good but do no harm’ in order to avoid the unintended consequences when bad results flow from good intentions. Secondly, to ‘give all you can’ when weighing the claims of others against your own needs. And thirdly, to ‘give back and pass it on’ to repay the philanthropy we have all, at some point, received and to ensure that the tradition of philanthropy is stewarded and preserved for future generations.

The need to be good stewards of the philanthropic tradition occupies the entire concluding chapter, which – staying true to the book’s title – advocates better understanding of philanthropy as the surest route to defending its essential roles in key democratic tasks such as defining, advocating and achieving the public good, advancing the general welfare and responding when things go wrong. Such seriously ambitious goals perhaps ultimately justify the authors’ occasionally serious and self-important tone.

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  • Understanding philanthropy