Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

The Wisdom of Generosity, The Perfect Gift, and Giving Well, Doing Good

The American history of printed primary sources has been rich and varied. Starting in the nineteenth century with the growing interest in preserving America’s memory of its Revolution and Constitution making, documentary editors in the early republic began what would become a notable part of American record-keeping as editors assembled lasting collections meant for the public. This practice during the twentieth century began to concentrate more and more on publishing primary sources for academic and scholarly uses rather than for a general audience. The advent of the Internet has altered the publication template yet again, now offering one-and-all access to both previously published letterpress editions of primary and secondary sources, as well as unpublished primary sources. One of the consequences of this, of course, has been the diminishment of letterpress publications of primary sources in American history that follow a chronological narrative or a specific historical subject. The intention of virtually all of these publications had been to help the reader to acquire a better “firsthand” understanding, one that  as not colored by the intermediate voice of any historian’s narrative interpretation. In an age when we are awash in document, the services of skilled anthologists may be more important than ever.

We should thus welcome the appearance in the last few years of three distinctive volumes dedicated to a consideration of the history and the many meanings of philanthropy: three volumes dedicated to the exploration of an idea that has been a centerpiece in the drama of human history and a distinctive feature of American life since the colonial beginnings. The editors of these volumes clearly have taken delight in selecting with some considerable care those sources which illustrate the depth and diversity of the multitude of ideas that illuminate the essential meanings of philanthropy. The result is to open to the reader of these volumes a world of creative commentary, inexhaustible in its reach and richness. Any reader who opens these volumes with some notion that they may find a shortcut to a clear understanding of the meaning of philanthropy will be disabused of such an assumption after but a few selections. This was not an unpleasant discovery by this reviewer.

Sometimes when people are confronted with collections such as these, they may opt to breeze along through them, selecting this and that as they go. These editors, each with distinctive purposes that shape their selection of documents, offer collections that have the magnetic effect of beseeching readers not to do that, their effect even trumping Kass’s permission “to pick and choose.” Instead the unspoken counsel of these sources commends an in seriatim procession so as to permit these documents, each special in its own way, to sink in, one at a time, in order.  Both of these editors endorse a deeper engagement, one that calls for time and focused attention. As a consequence, the primary sources that these editor/conductors offer become a vast, richly-variegated oratorio of ideas and perspectives from many, many voices from many, many places over many, many years.

With such prodigious and ambitious undertakings as these, the place of the editor looms large. Selection and organizing, of course, are crucial elements insofar as when taken together these elements of editing become a substantive dimension of the stories that these editors elect to present. The window into the character of the editors’ intentions is framed by the introductions they offer to the book and to the documents they select. (The tables of contents showing the selections themselves, the heart of the works, are available for the curious on the respective sales pages.)

Several themes emerge common to all three volumes. First, and perhaps most significant, is the emphasis that both Kass and Jackson place upon selecting sources that illuminate the differences between what is often identified as a philanthropic act and, on the other hand, a life given to the quest of becoming philanthropic. From Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Maimonides, and others forward, there has been a clear notice that being philanthropic, being generous, and acting with gratitude were matters of character—a way of life governed by a reflective intention to seek good means to achieve good ends. Lives such as these might well find a multitude of different expressions, even lives of beggars as Stephen Vincent Benet offered in his story, “The Bishop’s Beggar,” a story that might have pleased Maimonides (Kass 2002, 378-394). Many of the stories and poems such as this focus on immaterial transfers, those that often take both time and consideration for specific others. The material gifts that launch foundations, for instance, are sometimes single, intentional, well-considered acts, a once-in-alifetime offering.

Second, as a matter of course, both editors, in selecting documents, distinguish between those who admonish and those who offer narrative, both traditions of ancient origin offering different perspectives. Admonishment has roots deep in the human quest to encourage generosity and gratitude. Here the distinctions between those admonishments that are understood to have been divinely-inspired contrast with those that issue from a man-centered ambition to influence or control behavior through exhortation that on occasion serves as pretext for the exercise of force. Personal narratives expressed in poetry and prose offer exemplars, offering readers the liberty of free choice, a glimpse into the potentials and the responsibilities of freedom. Present in both admonishment and in narrative has been the question of moral imperatives, giving voice to the human ambition not only to self-development but also to provide an encouraging way for others to what it means to be fully human. Readers will find resonance with these narratives according to their own viewpoints and temperaments.

Third, both Kass and Jackson exhibit respect, not only for those documents they have chosen, but also for their readers. These volumes become offerings, gifts in themselves, philanthropic in nature, reflecting the reaching out of the editors, in a manner that George McCully, citing Aeschylus, suggested was a reflection of “‘mankind-loving character’” (Kass 2008, 423). The editors stress, however, that these selections do not stand on their own, ample fodder for the autodidact. Instead they require a substantive augmentation that grows out of public discussion for Kass and from what Jackson views as service learning.

In his editorial design, Jackson is the more immediately personal of the two.  The introductory essay is openly and charmingly autobiographical. “I had to go far from home to learn about community service and to rediscover the generous heart of my native land.” Thus in his first sentences does Jackson offer the fingerpost for his collection. Like Kass, Jackson believes that his collection is a “means to reflect on . . . American generosity in thought and deed” (xxiii). Later he will add a didactic note, implying that Americans are obligated to learn more about the history of their traditions of generosity, adding that it is his wish “to contribute to the process in which charitable giving and the study of philanthropy becomes more self-aware” (xxxii). To accomplish his mission, Jackson has spent years travelling widely in space and time in order to search out the documents. He has dipped into countless libraries, ventured to many different places to observe many different people celebrating many distinctively different acts of generosity, participated in community fundraisers, and witnessed those distinctive moments when people reacted to emergencies and responded to people in extremis. Out of this wide experience in history and geography, Jackson has constructed a hall of mirrors for American generosity, which he suggests emerges from a global “wisdom tradition” that points not so much to American exceptionalism as it does to an indwelling, more universal, inspirational questing, one that has, in turn, inspired expressions of distinctive generosity in the United States.

Having evoked a welter of different “voices,” Jackson adds a most arresting editorial template for his selections: “And I like fractal images—geometric shapes in which the parts reflect the whole shape of a large complex image on smaller scales. Such structures allow us to consider a topic with many aspects and nuances and their interrelationships. This book is thus a mosaic of pieces organized in related clusters by time periods and themes.” As an historian, Jackson describes his editorial role with such phrases as “stage manager,” “composer of a collage,” and an amplifier of “this unlikely chorus of discordant concord” (xxvi-xxvii). It is important to recognize that Jackson sees himself as more than an historian, however. To that craft he adds two other lenses: “enduring symbolic ideas of spiritual wisdom” and “depth psychology” to inform and shape his understanding of the history of American generosity (xxix).

In turning to the two volumes edited by Amy Kass, the reader enters a different world of reflection, a world in which the editor intentionally seeks to encourage readers to engage in conversation with the sources and with one another. Each volume came into being after extensive conversations with different gatherings of people organized around a consideration of documents that would become a part of the volumes. This careful gestation finds expression in the distinctive head notes. Here Kass does more than introduce the selections. In each head note she inserts suggestive questions with the intention that they will “make for more active and discerning reading” (2002, 7). Left unsaid is the chance that some readers will disagree with the aptness of a particular question, the upshot being the likely silent substitute of other questions, the engagement Kass sought thus sustained albeit redirected.

The precise historical context is not a main concern for Kass. Rather, she seeks in each volume to examine the elements that she considers elementary in giving shape to the quest that she advertises in the subtitles for each volume. The subtitle of her first volume, The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose, might be viewed by some as counterintuitive. That is, until the reader soon arrives at that point in the introduction when Kass claims “that we are all, in the root sense of the term, philanthropists. . . . [sharing] the disposition to promote the happiness and well-being of one’s fellows” (2002, 3). Thus it is that the readings are gathered in such a fashion to elaborate and probe this central contention. Consequently in this volume the majority of documents are the stories of individuals, real and imaged, living in a special time and a special place. Each of the five parts has about ten entries. The first four sections are (I) “Why Should I Give?”; (II) “How Should I Give?”; (III) “To Whom or For What Should I Give?”; and (IV)”What Should I Give?” (vii-ix).

Only in the final section, (V) “Can Giving Be Taught?”, does Kass allow the preponderance of voices to become didactic. By this time, however, the reader is well prepared for the advices, having ventured this far in the company of Kass and so many powerful stories and poems. At this point the reader has acquired a new and better understanding of the philanthropic “disposition” in large measure because the path to this understanding has led through the immediacy of the varied moral challenges to people in specific places and times. The cumulative power of these voices, now the new property of the reader, has the capacity to become transformative, which, of course, is just what the editor might hope.

This claim gains standing thanks to the Hermes metaphor that Kass uses to begin the collection. Here Hermes becomes a divine messenger, one appearing suddenly, without warning, with news of gifts which were sometimes good and sometimes bad. Kass fashions this so as to apply it to every person, grand or small, each being endowed with the capacity to choose the right path with whatever gifts they may come to possess. Nature and nurture combine in this forming of the philanthropic imagination, one that attaches to all and that depends upon the individual to nourish and exercise regardless of the physical surroundings.

This is also just what Kass hopes for in the second volume. And yet, as this anthology can be understood to complement the first volume, it is a collection that stands clearly on its own, one distinctive in its purposes, something shown clearly in the subtitle, Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists. Not only is the collection of documents substantially different, but also the intended audience is more specialized—individuals in the business of philanthropy. This affects the mood of the book. Quite unlike the first volume, many of the documents in the second, while not arranged to follow a chronology, reveal the burden of the American history of philanthropy. And yet this volume is informed by the first—just enough of the selections are the same—to suggest that from the beginning “thoughtful philanthropists,” no matter how engaged they may have become in the trenches of organized philanthropy, carry the same moral obligation to sustain the principled trust responsibility that emerges from the first Kass collection. Thus do these two books achieve a cumulative effect on the reader.

In the introduction to the second volume, Kass ventures into an overview of the American history of organized philanthropy, just enough to illustrate the remarkable growth in the number of foundations and the extraordinary size of several, spawning in due course the dubious offspring—the professional foundation philanthropist. Coupled with the historical narrative of expanding governmental welfare provisions, the geography of twentieth-century philanthropy took on new characteristics as the larger foundations and the federal government, often in some sort of legal and political partnership, emphasized national programs which tended, among other things, to diminish American traditions of the place and the purposes of philanthropy. These convergences became even more problematic as the post Enlightenment embrace of social engineering found new and powerful voices in the state and in the top reaches of the large foundations. By the end of the century this combination of police power, money, and behavioral advocacy had created a new world, one that Kass acknowledges as she organizes the six sections of this volume. This recognition, carefully offered, separates this collection from the others under review, giving a certain moral and intellectual urgency to the sources, suggesting that time has become a major factor to consider when addressing the urgent problems pressing on thoughtful philanthropists. As one reaches the end of this collection it will have become clear that there are now new and complex dimensions of responsibility facing any who would become active participants in this troubled and increasingly contentious world. Caveat emptor indeed.

Kass continued the editorial approach in this volume with the same success as she had earlier. The readings are organized in six sections: (I) “Goals and Intentions” (with the question: “What should today’s philanthropy aim to do?”); (II) “Gifts, Donors, Recipients; Grants, Grantors, Grantees” (with the questions: “What is the meaning of a grant or a gift?” and “What sorts of relationships and obligations does a grant/gift imply for givers and receivers?”); (III) “Bequests and Legacies” (with the questions: “What is the relationship between a bequest and a legacy?”; “What should guide those who give and those who receive bequests?”; and “How should we prepare the next generation?”; (IV) “Effectiveness” (with the questions: “What is required for effective philanthropy?” and “How should we judge philanthropy’s effectiveness?”); (V) “Accountability” (with the questions: “For what should philanthropy be responsible?”; “To whom should philanthropy be responsible?”; and “How should we educate for responsibility?”); and, finally, (VI) “Philanthropic Leadership” (with the question: “What should we expect of philanthropic leaders?”) (2008, vii-xii). Between four and twelve sources accompany each of these questions, sources both ancient and modern embracing both admonishment and narrative (for example: Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor”). In addition these questions reveal editorial themes that are further explored in the head notes for each source.

Permit me to conclude this review with a personal end note. I am not a philanthropist. On the contrary, having spent most of my working life as an American historian teaching in colleges and universities; as a documentary editor; and briefly as a program officer for Liberty Fund, I have been the beneficiary of philanthropy. I have found these three volumes wonderfully moving, inviting me to think and wonder about the many probing questions posed by these editors. It was not long before I noticed that I was not reading with an eye to offering an academic review, for these volumes occupied such a special place. Both Jackson and Kass begin with the important assumption that the quest for generosity and for gratitude contributes in major ways to defining what it means to be fully human. The two volumes that Kass edited stand alone, but they team up as well with the Jackson collection, becoming cumulative. Taken together these three volumes, given the power generated by the focused editorial purpose, become transformative. In the final analysis, it matters not what perspective or what experience the reader might bring to these collections, for these documents become remarkably compelling to the citizen, the scholar, and the donor alike.  If these many sources serve as an inquiry into the many meanings of philanthropy, reading them soon takes the reader into inquiries about the moral life in all of its distinctive expressions over many years in many different places and situations.  These sources, then, offer a guidepost—a template for the better appreciation of the American past and of the immediate world around us. These collections thus illuminate the power of constructive humility in the historical development of the exceptionalism of American citizenship as well as the transnational capacity of people to recognize and act on their common humanity.

GEORGE M. CURTIS III is Professor of History at Hanover College.

Read more reviews