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Modern "scientific" Philanthropy

Reformation-era debates over giving accelerated the secularization, rationalization, and nationalization of philanthropy. Disgusted with doctrinaire religious bickering and giving, statesmen-philosophers of the European Enlightenment sought to define and effect a "scientific philanthropy" that would efficiently benefit the truly needy and entire nations as well. Legislators in England, France, and central Europe simultaneously denounced private and religious endowed charitable foundations whose limited antique purposes or beneficiaries had been rendered obsolete by the passage of time. Parliamentarians enacted legislation to curb the creation of foundations via gifts of land to permanent endowments and they favored methods of ad hoc fundraising to meet any community's pressing needs. Utilitarians of the nineteenth century, like John Stuart Mill, advocated closer national supervision of all charities and politically mandated investment of their liquid assets in state bonds to enhance their public benefit and economic partnership with government. Britain's national Charity Commissioners, first deputized by Parliament in 1818 and made permanent in 1853, soon exercised authorization and annual inspection powers over all philanthropic organizations.

In America, colonial and then state constitutions differed widely in the encouragement and discouragement of private philanthropy leading to the failure of many interstate charitable bequests and organizations. This frustrating situation spurred many legal battles and multiple interventions by the U.S.. Supreme Court, including the famous Dartmouth College case decision in 1819. Here, the justices quashed an attempt by the governor and state legislature of New Hampshire to take over Dartmouth College and change its curriculum to meet state needs. The court held that the state's plan violated the school's charter and grossly abused the law of contracts. That charter, obtained from the royal provincial governor by the college's founders in colonial times, was itself a contract between the government that issued it and the trustees of the college. By the U.S. Constitution, such agreements could be altered only if all parties to the original contract, or their successors, concurred. This point of law reinforced the separation of church and state while also promoting the freedom of conscience and speech for the agents of philanthropic corporations.

Early Americans fought hard in the courts to compile a body of law stipulating the rights of incorporated philanthropies and protecting them against government spoliation. Boosters of charity organization societies in England and America campaigned successfully for greater coordination and professionalization of philanthropic work, castigating "mere charity" as wasteful, sentimental, and incapable of solving the modern socioeconomic problems caused by urbanization and industrialization. The rise of "social work" as an accredited, data-driven service vocation in modern times exemplifies the triumph of a professionalized and scientific philanthropy. This trend strengthened when immensely wealthy and influential captains of U.S. industry, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr., transferred their millions to personal philanthropic corporations organized and operated in accord with rigorous business principles. Foundation executives, confronted with the necessity of managing endowments now more often comprised of corporate stock, recruited highly skilled staffs to handle the accumulation and pay out of philanthropic capital.

Jewish benefactors contributed to these trends by subsidizing a wider array of causes and organizations, like loan funds, hospitals, and support networks for Eastern European immigrants, the aid being more practical and scientific than pious in nature. The advent of Zionism in the nineteenth century, the calamity of the Holocaust, and the creation of the state of Israel catalyzed modern Jewish philanthropy as a means of nation building and commemoration of historic events.

By contrast, ancient Islamic forms of philanthropy have remained very influential in Muslim communities throughout modern times, especially support of Koranic schools, mosques, public works, and poor relief. Vital here is the enduring medieval institution of the waqf (pl. awqaf), a transfer in perpetuity of real estate or productive property to support a religious or charitable institution forever. Islamic law stipulates the inviolability of such endowments, postulating Allah himself as their owner. This level of material security greatly appealed to elite Moslem property owners living under rapacious monarchs and without recourse to fixed laws of testation and property succession by heirs. They created many family awqaf with immediate kin and descendants richly rewarded as the direct beneficiaries or well-paid administrators of these endowments. Here, institutionalized philanthropy as protection of clan interests and as projection of political protest elicited the wrath of Muslim state rulers, ancient and modern. In the post-colonial Mid-East, secularizing Turkish and Arab nationalist governments (in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia) have resorted to confiscations of waqf properties, advancing state policies at the expense of traditional philanthropies and their prime beneficiaries, especially clerics. Such tactics underscore the fragility of civil society in the region and promote sectarian conflict.

In modern times, the rise of mass-circulation daily newspapers and muckraking exposés significantly reshaped Western philanthropy, as journalists produced stories decrying socioeconomic problems, the irrelevance of existing charities, and the need for better benevolent organizations. Learned societies and professional bodies—like bar associations, incorporated as nonprofit organizations, contributed their journals and specialized studies to a growing flood of information about the best means, measures, and objectives of effective philanthropy. Generalized contempt for charity's dead hand made constant self-scrutiny and a capacity for self-renewal to meet new social problems prized attributes of modern philanthropic organizations. Many newer charitable foundations are even primed to spend themselves out of existence and self-destruct after a set period of time so as to prevent their social obsolescence. These achievements have often brought greater coherence between the demand and supply of philanthropy. The remarkable dynamism of the nonprofit sector in the United States and abroad, signaled by the proliferation of private family foundations, grassroots community foundations, and donor-advised funds highly responsive to the fluid social awareness and giving interests of contributors, demonstrates broader public participation in historic debates over the real meaning of philanthropy. For the moment, this agitation confirms rather than subverts modern philanthropy's scientific pretensions.


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Kevin C. Robbins

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismPhilanthropy - Ancient Mediterranean Examples, Christian Regimes Of Philanthropy, Early Modern Refinements, Modern "scientific" Philanthropy