Why history should matter to philanthropists

By Paul Vallely 13 October 2020 5 minute read

At NPC, we’re keen for the charity sector to have an open debate about what the future holds post-Covid. We don’t need to go back to how we did things before. But just how ambitious are we prepared to be?

In this guest blog, Paul Vallely, author of Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, reflects on what history teaches us about priorities, responsibility and humility. Paul will be taking part in a panel debate this week on the future of philanthropy at NPC Ignites.


There is a timeworn joke about an old man who is asked for directions by a stranger. He replies: “If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here”. Of course, here is where we inescapably start from. Or is it?

When I began to research my new history of philanthropy I thought it was a two-year project. Six years later it has finally been published. The extra time the research and writing took was, in part, because I had underestimated the vastness and complexity of the subject. But it was also because I was starting in the wrong place. I realised I needed to go back further and drill down deeper.

Philanthropy today is commonly taken to mean a rich person giving a large amount of money to a good cause. But over the past two thousand years and more it has been, variously:  a matter of honour, a religious command, a display of self-aggrandisement, a mechanism of political control, a vehicle for moral activism, an expression of enlightened self-interest, and even a stratagem for the rich to consolidate their power and privilege in society. Sometimes it is more than one thing at the same time.

But what eventually became clear was that two distinct traditions in philanthropy emerged very early on. One dominated charitable giving for 1000 years. And then there was a dramatic shift and the other gained the ascendancy.  What my book Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg argues is that philanthropy would be better today if it found ways to restore the balance between the two approaches.

The word philanthropy derives from the Greek phílos, beloved, and ánthrōpos, a human being. At the heyday of Athenian democracy, in the fourth century BC, a system known as leitourgia was used to persuade members of the wealthy elite to finance a specific public cause – from funding a play or sending a team of athletes to the Olympic Games to extremely expensive projects like building a temple or a warship.

Prominent citizens sought to outdo one another in the extravagance of their gifts, to show the superiority of their own civic virtue. Those who declined to pay risked ostracism and opprobrium. The early laws of Athens were described as ‘philanthropic and democratic’, suggesting that it was philanthropy which made humankind capable of self-government.

Around the same time Judaism instituted an entirely different kind of philanthropy. The Hebrew Bible began with the story of Adam and Eve, an Everyman and Everywoman, made in the image of God. It was a revolutionary doctrine in a Middle Eastern world where only kings, emperors, and pharaohs were gods.

Yahweh was spoken of as the God of the Poor, a phrase never applied to any Greek or Roman god.  God had a special love for the poor and therefore so should all believers. Giving was no longer simply about social relationships. It was a human echo of divine generosity.

It injected into philanthropy the idea that both those who gave and those who received were bound together in a relationship with one another, with God, and with the entire community. And in Hebrew, the word for charity, tzedakah, also meant justice.

So for the Greeks and Romans, philanthrôpía was about cementing society. But it was top-down. It was always a voluntary activity among the elite. By contrast, for the Jews, tzedakah was about community.  It was two-way, not top-down. And it was a religious obligation which fell on everybody.

For the two thousand years which followed these two approaches – the top-down and the two-way – have run like threads through the history of philanthropy, throwing up different lessons in different situations. They persist today in what my book characterises as strategic and reciprocal philanthropy. Studying that history offers new insights into the way philanthropy is done today, and how it can be improved.

What we find is that the top-down approach has often been about philanthropy as a mechanism for social control. That was true of the Roman system of patronage, of the Elizabethan Poor Laws, and of Victorian charitable moralising.

It reached its high point in the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie who thought that the rich were innately superior to the poor. He set the template for 20th century philanthropy. Bill Gates has a tendency towards the same data-driven, matrix-focused command-and-control approach, though this is softened by the influence of his wife Melinda whose role in the Gates Foundation is often under-estimated. It is there in the philanthropcapitalism of the digital mega-rich who want to bring business methods into today’s Big Giving.

The other tradition, of two-way philanthropy, was dominant throughout a thousand years of medieval Christian charity from the 4th to the 14th centuries, in which the rich had a duty to give, and the poor had a duty to pray for the salvation of the souls of their benefactors.

But it resurfaced after the Enlightenment among activist philanthropists like the prison reformer John Howard (the first man in England to be actually called a philanthropist) and the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce – in whose tradition of agitator philanthropy celebrities like Bob Geldof, Bono and Angelina Jolie have followed.

It is there in the new Lanark factories of Robert Owen who insisted that if you created the right environment those who lived and worked in it would become good, rational and decent individuals. It is there in the feminist five-per-cent philanthropy of Octavia Hill who believed only women should be rent collectors.

It is there in the Quaker paternalism of the chocolate-makers Joseph Rowntree and George Cadbury who changed their business methods to fit their philanthropy (where many philanthrocapitalists today do the opposite).  And it survives among those modern philanthropists who eschew top-down methods and instead seek to develop a model of mutual respect and partnership between giver and recipient.

All this throws up lessons for modern philanthropy – about proportion, priorities, boundaries, corruption, anonymity and responsibility, about the deserving and the undeserving, about how to learn from your mistakes, and how to have the humility to listen and to change. Many of the issues philanthropists and philanthropy professionals tussle with today have been worked through in previous generations.  The lessons of history are plentiful for those who have eyes to see them.


Paul Vallely  is the author of Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg, published by Bloomsbury at £30. For 25% a discount, use the code IGNITES25 at Offer ends 30th November 2020.

Paul will be taking part in a panel debate this week on the future of philanthropy at NPC Ignites. Book your ticket here.

Guest blogs are the views of the author. Have you got an idea to share about the future of the charity sector? We’d love to hear from you.


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