Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Imperialism by Philanthropy

How elite foundations displaced charity in the name of progress

Acknowledgments sections contain such useful information. Case in point: what should we expect from a history of American philanthropy that, according to its author, was funded by three of the largest stars in the philanthropic firmament—the Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, combined assets of $23 billion?

We should expect an official history. And this is what we get. Olivier Zunz’s Philanthropy in America: A History is informative. But it is also thoroughly partisan, which severely limits its usefulness.

Foundations stride onto the American stage wearing snow-white hats in Zunz’s morality play. Through their strategic funding and expertise, they cure disease, liberate the mind, fight racism, promote democracy, and feed the world. Zunz, who teaches history at the University of Virginia, happily accepts big philanthropy’s own claims and prejudices as valid.

The story he tells is quite simple:

Once upon a time, there was charity. Charity sought to help individual men and women in need. It was overseen by churches and synagogues and ethnically based associations. It was modest. It was local. It was hopelessly unsystematic, unorganized, and shortsighted. And it just plain didn’t work, as everybody knew.

Fortunately, the men (and their wives) who got rich during America’s industrial age were public-spirited folk who wanted to give back. More fortunate yet, they were farsighted business leaders brave enough to want to fundamentally transform society through their good works, just as they had transformed it through their commercial activities. And best of all, few were shackled by the constraints of traditional religious belief.

At the same time, new heroes called reformers entered stage left. They were skeptical of the industrialists, but they broad-mindedly agreed to swallow their doubts in return for a partnership with the tycoons, who needed their help in attacking social problems at their roots. That dream—of finding “long-term solutions to social problems”—was what distinguished both groups from the old practitioners of charity.

Finally, there were the scientists, who were chafing at the restrictions of the denominationally affiliated academic institutions that employed them. They partnered with the industrialists and reformers to capture those institutions so that they could produce the knowledge necessary to remake society and improve the lot of mankind—goals that, thanks to religion, had long been impossible to reach.

And it worked, just as all three groups had said it would! Wealth became directed toward social justice, science was liberated from religion, systemic social reforms were implemented, and man was bettered. The end.

The attentive reader, if he or she can stand that kind of Whig history for 300 pages, will find a more complex story peeking from between the lines of Zunz’s text. The critics of the new philanthropy—or what was at first called, in the latter half of the 19th century, “scientific charity”—get very small speaking parts. But Zunz dutifully reports their warnings that the new foundations would only result in America’s insanely wealthy gaining even more social power. Zunz implies that their concerns were overblown, outdated, misplaced—and goes on to show that in fact they were right on the money.

Take, for instance, the relentlessly anti-Christian character of the new philanthropy. To “secularize American higher education” was one of its first aims. Secularization was necessary to identify and extirpate the “root causes” of social ills which was impossible without the assistance of “value-neutral” scientific research along the German model. But America’s religiously affiliated higher-education institutions—allegedly narrowly “denominational in outlook” and not “open to science”—frustrated this ambition.

Enter the new foundations, especially Rockefeller and Carnegie, which set about exploiting the relative penury of faculty members to bring about radical change. As Zunz writes, “establishing pension systems was in the air” at the turn of the century. Few faculty had such benefits, but the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching was willing to provide them—as long as the college in question would remove denominational requirements from its charter.

For many schools, that mess of pottage proved to be irresistible. The modern secular university owes much to this and similar strategic interventions by a few powerful foundations.

Zunz doesn’t make the connection, but here we see the outlines of an interesting story about how foundations helped to narrow the meaning of “reason” in the public mind to whatever can be demonstrated by scientific research divorced from theological inquiry. We glimpse how foundations helped to de-diversify American higher education by helping to eliminate the distinctive differences between institutions with different denominational backgrounds. And it would seem to be worth asking whether foundations’ insistence on a barrier between philosophical and scientific concerns ultimately helped lead to disbelief in the very idea of truth. Instead, Zunz blandly assures us that modern philanthropy “emancipated academic life from its sectarian straitjacket and introduced a new scientific ethos to the country.”

Another social change wrought by the new philanthropy was what we might call the de-localization of how Americans thought about their charitable obligations.

Zunz makes clear that partisans of the new philanthropy had contempt for mere charity. Insetad, in “doing good” they sought to make a “financial investment,” a “capitalist venture in social betterment, not an act of kindness as understood in Christianity.” This is vitally important: the new philanthropy was created self-consciously as an improvement on and alternative to Christian caritas, or love.

The problem was that few Americans seemed ready to jettison old-fashioned ideas about whom they were to help and how. Americans’ giving habits needed to undergo a “drastic change.” The fundamental impediment was that “Americans normally contributed to local charities,” a wasteful and ignorant habit that did little to advance universal human values or what Zunz calls “the systematic search for the common good” (a term he never defines).

The solution lay in the tools of mass marketing. In the first decades of the 20th century, the new philanthropy worked assiduously to convince the common man and woman not to save money, as they were wont to do, but to invest it in the common good by giving to national groups and causes—for example, fighting tuberculosis—administered by professionals.

For this strategy to work, it was necessary to nurture a national consciousness—this is the era in which the United States went from a plural to a singular noun—by stigmatizing localism and all particularist identity markers of class, ethnicity, and religion through an “Americanization movement.” The newly available tools of mass marketing, already perfecting the art of manufacturing and manipulating desire, were ideally suited for such a task. One might see this as an ambiguous development. Zunz does not.

War, too, played a pivotal role in the process of deracination and the rise of a philanthropic managerial class. World War I fundraising efforts “led to the definitive breakthrough in mass philanthropy.” There was relentless propaganda for the war-bond effort, ceaseless “exhortations to give.”

Not all charitable giving during this period was “really voluntary,” Zunz notes. Employers often told their employees how much to give, even docking their pay without their consent. “With the war, responding to fundraising appeals became not only an act of generosity but also a test of nationalism and obedience,” writes Zunz. Charitable organizations like the Red Cross sometimes reported people who refused to give to the war effort. Zunz spends no time plumbing the meaning of this coercion.

Indeed, Big Philanthropy’s coercive side is something this official history prefers to skip over. Thus, for example, Zunz tells us that in the Cold War period John D. Rockefeller III founded the Population Council and convinced other funders to get behind “a worldwide movement for population control.” The Ford Foundation threw in, too. “Few then worried about such abuses as the involuntary sterilization programs in India and other places that have since been exposed.”

Whoa, wait—what? Yet Zunz simply moves on, right when a dispassionate scholar might ask some pointed questions. Shouldn’t they have worried? Does the fact that they didn’t worry point to a structural flaw in large-scale, impersonal, root-causes, top-down philanthropy? “Involuntary sterilization” is not a minor issue.

Similarly, although Zunz discusses foundations’ major support for Margaret Sanger’s campaign for eugenics and birth control, he never condemns eugenics; he apparently thinks it entirely understandable that huge philanthropies invested heavily in attempts to prevent the “unfit” from procreating. Forced sterilizations, and victims such as Carrie Buck, go unmentioned.

Almost the only time foundations come in for sustained criticism is when it comes to race. In short, many philanthropists in the late 19th and early to mid-20th century were not as enlightened as we—or else they were enlightened but still too hesitant to fund efforts to fight Jim Crow, segregation, and the like. Zunz is tiresomely full of tut-tutting here. Even Herbert Hoover, with whom Zunz seems to be sympathetic, gets a swipe for not taking advantage of the Mississippi flood of 1927 to “break the thick layers of racial prejudice encountered in the process.”

And oh, that South. So much to change down there! It took a while for the new philanthropy to get much purchase in Dixie, Zunz tells us, since “the bureaucratic-educational-philanthropic coalition had to overcome much local resistance to outside interference.” Why so much resistance? Racism, one supposes. Sheer ignorance. Yet we elsewhere learn that similar difficulties were encountered overseas in Europe, Africa, and India. Why the difficulties there? Racism again, and ignorance.

That’s a self-congratulatory and implausibly simplistic story. The truth is that modern philanthropy was resisted from the beginning because it was seen for what it in part was: a tool by which centralizing elites sought to expropriate power from local communities.

Representative turn-of-the-century figures such as Daniel Coit Gilman emphasized that philanthropy was more enlightened, more fair, and more rational than charity precisely because it was national rather than local in scope. Philanthropy was run by a placeless managerial class rather than by persons with “personal, sectional, political, or denominational prejudices.”

Zunz claims there was “virtually universal dissatisfaction in late-nineteenth-century America with the distribution of alms to the poor. Not only was charity unpopular, but the ineffectiveness of the existing patchwork of poor houses and outdoor relief was widely deplored.”

This is misleading. The historian Benjamin Soskis has shown that there was a considerable pro-charity constituency in 19th-century America—but it was a constituency with little social power. It included Catholics, Jews, some Protestants, ethnic groups of all kinds. They had their own criticisms of contemporary charitable practices and institutions, but they were by no means looking to overcome charity, nor did they think charity per se inadequate or outdated.

The Catholic intellectual Orestes Brownson spoke for them when he said that philanthropy was Satan’s favorite guise. He understood that the reformers had rejected charity because it was associated with the ancient view that social evils were ultimately rooted in human hearts—and thus not susceptible to amelioration through technological reason.

But the partisans of Judaic and Christian conceptions of charity lost, and their conquerors are writing the history. Zunz is right that philanthropy “should be understood as part of the American progressive tradition.” He is wrong that this tradition is uncomplicatedly related to the “improvement of mankind.”

Jeremy Beer is editor, with Bruce Frohnen and Jeffrey O. Nelson, of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.