Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Fate of the Commons

To fully appreciate the significance of this valuable book by one of our leading practitioner/scholars, one needs to understand its cultural context within the profession.  Bruce Sievers' has eminent credentials—trained in political science, former head of state Humanities Councils, then of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund of San Francisco (1983-2002), and currently at Stanford University's Center on Civil Society.  This broad background positions him well to bridge philanthropy's two cultures—social-scientific and humanistic—in the current rapidly transforming period of paradigm-shift.

The dominant culture in the 20th century nonprofit profession was and still is that of the social sciences, which naturally focuses on groups and their behavior.  Its conceptual framework is a societal ideal: "civil society" centered on the "third" or "independent" "sector," loosely defined as what the other two sectors are not: "non-governmental organizations" and "nonprofit" institutions.  It stands between the other two as "private initiatives for public good,” distinct from both government (public initiatives for public good) and business (private initiatives for private profit).  Its scholars, as social scientists, focus on technical and procedural issues.  They have relied heavily on IRS data concerning "nonprofits," analyzed statistically.  Attached to academic social science departments studying the first two sectors, they purport to provide technical assistance to nonprofit managers, most of whom also have social science training.  This culture has rarely used, much less defined, "philanthropy" as a word or concept.

A second culture has begun to emerge, however, which has Classical humanistic roots, in the origins of philanthropia to refer to the "love of what it is to be human."  This humanistic understanding was revived in the Renaissance, flourished in the Enlightenment (especially in the American Revolution), barely survived the long demise of Classical education, and is now being rediscovered.  The modern humanistic view accepts practical "philanthropy" as focusing on "private initiatives for public good," but significantly adds, "focusing on quality of life"—i.e., values, for both benefactors and beneficiaries. It sees philanthropy as both public benefit and personal culture or life-style—as a form of continuing education, in which philanthropists identify their values and exercise them for public good in giving and volunteering. It focuses on individuals—donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries—and how philanthropy helps them to become more fully humane.

Philanthropy's current paradigm-shift—a total transformation, forced by computerization and the Internet, globalization of the American economy, and consequent new demographics of wealth—is a third contextual factor for understanding this book.  The Old Paradigm, which governed philanthropy in the last half of the 20th century, is being superseded by innovations that will eventually coalesce in an as-yet undefined New Paradigm for the twenty-first century.  First identified as a paradigm-shift for philanthropy around the turn of the millennium, this transformation has steadily gained momentum and is now in full force, irreversibly powered by advancing technology.  All is in flux, while ephemeral and lasting innovations sort themselves out.  Whether this transformation will achieve a balance between the social-scientific and humanistic cultures is a significant issue.            

Sievers' leadership experience in all three contextual milieux gives his book special timeliness and interest—and a somewhat split personality.  The orientation of the book seems inclined to address both humanistic and social-scientific issues, as Sievers' “aim” is "to examine the fundamental question: How does society balance the public and private sides of modern life…to realize…individual freedom and… achieve collective aims" (Sievers' 2010, xiii)?  Ultimately the book tilts toward the social-scientific perspective, in his words: “to clarify the concept of civil society in a liberal democracy, to trace civil society's historical development in the West, and to examine civil society's role in addressing a primary challenge to the modern world—how to reconcile the vast pluralism of individual interests and aspirations…with the pursuit of solutions to problems of public goods, which are vital to the future of humankind" (142).  He defines the "civil society idea" as comprised of seven “key concepts”: four "organizational structures"—philanthropic institutions, legal institutions, private associations, and a system of free expression; and three “social norms”—commitments to the common good, to individual rights, and to tolerance. Subsequent historical and sociological chapters are organized around these concepts, including a prescriptive conclusion of “specific steps modern philanthropy can take to strengthen civil society” (xiv).            

The book's views on philanthropy, however, are Old Paradigm—not carefully defined, and submerged in civil society. The definition’s chapter has only one paragraph on the subject, citing several scholars' vaguely summarized assertions that the two concepts are significantly connected. Chapter two provides a brief social-scientific survey of the history of philanthropy as the evolution of "institutional structures" allocating "private resources to…public needs,” from Classical times to the early modern period when foundations and private associations clearly emerged.  The last chapter considers philanthropy to be what foundations do (130); and addresses suggestions for philanthropy as a problem-solving instrument to large-foundation grant makers.  Individual donors (who supply 85% of the private dollars in philanthropy), are barely mentioned (122).            

 The most distinctive chapters, with the most enduring value, are historical—"The Emergence of Civil Society in the [17th century] Dutch Republic"; "The Enlightenment Legacy" (i.e., the "unresolved tension" between "private interests" and "public well-being"), emphasizing the Scottish Enlightenment; and "Civil Society in America," dealing especially with Tocquevillean voluntary associations (not seen as philanthropy, though that is how they explicitly conceived themselves, especially in creating the United States—see Federalist #1). The evolution of the modern, impersonal, bureaucratic State from the medieval tradition of personal and dynastic government has been thoroughly studied; Sievers'' significant contribution is to focus on the simultaneous emergence of civil society, skillfully drawing upon a large body of recent scholarship.            

The historical chapters prepare the central thesis of the last two chapters. "The question before us" is, "how will this balancing act [i.e., between private interests and "the common good”] play out in the twenty-first century" (106)?  Sievers' contends that in the late 20th century "excessive privatization" (116) became dominant over civic spiritedness, undermining "the commons" and commitment to "the common good."  He accepts the arguments of Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart), Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone), Jurgen Habermas (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere), William Galston, and Garrett Hardin, et al.             

His proposed solution, based on his preceding historical narrative, is that "philanthropy [is] the primary resource that frees civil society from purely market-driven or governmentally dominated behavior… [and] support[s] civil society's engagement with problems of the commons." "Philanthropy's historic blend of individualism, private resources, and concern for community betterment would seem to offer society's most important asset for combining private and public purposes" (122).  The key constituency for effecting this strategic initiative is, as in the Old Paradigm, "Practitioners of contemporary philanthropy, particularly those who serve as professionals and board members of large foundations."

Unconventionally, Sievers' sees several current fads as presenting serious technical and even epistemological problems impeding effective grant making: (1) Social-scientism[!]—i.e., linear, mechanistic, pseudo-scientific epistemology producing simplistic technical interventions.  He prefers the use of metis (practical, local, experience-based judgment) over episteme and techne (calculated theoretical social engineering), owing to the "randomness, innumerable variables, …absence of the conditions of controlled experimentation, and indeterminate time horizons" in real-life. (2) Public accountability in grant making, because it is politicizing. (3) Excessive emphasis on business-style metrics which are inadequate in producing public goods, and "not very good at solving complex social problems" (128).            

He then makes specific recommendations based on his seven elements of civil society.  Grant makers should strengthen commitment to common good and free expression, expand civic engagement (i.e., community involvement, voting, advocacy, voluntarism, and public debate), and build the infrastructure of civil society—new forms of social capital (citing Putnam), civic education, high-quality civic journalism—independent of governments and business (134-5).            

The list is unexceptionable as far as it goes, but the analysis has two shortcomings.  First, it seems oddly old-fashioned.  A small number of large foundations no longer set an "agenda" for philanthropy.  The word "Internet" does not appear until the last seven pages, and then uncomfortably: "The potential and limits of the new media (the Internet, cell phones, iPods, and other means of electronic communication) for building and sustaining civil society are still unclear…but could create great leverage in the future development of mass communications with civic purpose" (137).  He cites a 2004 study showing the "shift of the young away from political involvement" (139), with no mention of the 2008 Obama campaign. "The contemporary challenge facing major newspapers is a particularly stark example of the precarious state of the civic media…" (137).  Noting  “The hugely popular practices of blogging," he says that "Internet-mediated communication shows great promise as a new form of civic engagement for the millennial generation" (139).  What grant makers today will find these sentences informative?

The second shortcoming of the analysis is that personal philanthropy is underestimated. Individual donors are not seriously addressed either as a subject or as readers, notwithstanding that the new demographics of wealth have dramatically expanded and promoted philanthropy, making it not only chic (e.g. media coverage of celebrity-philanthropy, the Gates-Buffett GivingPledge, et al.), but verging on a popular movement.  The word "philanthropy” has entered the vernacular.              

These shortcomings are Old Paradigm characteristics.  The Internet and changed demographics of wealth are forces driving the paradigm-shift and the emergence of a New Paradigm.  In this dynamic context, familiarity with Internet philanthropy, and an au courant humanistic understanding of personal philanthropy and its current dynamics, would strengthen the main argument: how philanthropy can strengthen civil society.  


George McCully has had two careers: professing Renaissance history (1965-1983) and professional philanthropist (1983-present).  He is founder/CEO of the Catalogue for Philanthropy, (1997-present), which is developing thePhilanthropic Directory system (2011) in Massachusetts and nationwide; in 2008 he published Philanthropy Reconsidered.

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