Monday, December 21, 2009

Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History

Scholars, in ever larger numbers, are coming to see that the study of philanthropy is a means of gaining deep insight into American culture and history. This trend was made manifest in, and furthered by, the publication of Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History (2003). The book is a compilation of scholarly essays exploring the roots, dimensions and evolution of Americans' remarkable range of efforts to reform social ills, fight disease, improve education and to create a more just, democratic, peaceful and prosperous society.

The essays examine the intentions and consequences of various philanthropic ideals and initiatives, as well as their benefits, drawbacks and unintended consequences. In an essay entitled, "Woman and Political Culture," Kathleen McCarthy enumerates the distinct and disproportionate contributions women made to philanthropic pursuits as well as philanthropy itself and what philanthropy did for women. She writes, "Far from being apolitical, many middle-class housewives were deeply enmeshed in the practice of governance well before they won the right to vote... Although the first female-controlled charities were founded and managed by female elites, by the 1810s a national infrastructure for mobilization and reform had emerged... Over the past two centuries, American women effectively invested their time, talents, and funds in building an array of public services. Through their philanthropic activities, black and white women -- both North and South -- backed their churches, founded charities and literary societies, participated in social reform movements to end slavery and extend the vote, and worked in tandem with state and federal officials over the course of the Civil War. These activities enabled at least some to win political and legal benefits for themselves, to accord women's and children's issues a prominent place on the public agenda, and to promote social change to a degree unmatched in other industrialized nations. In the process, they managed to shape American government and the American welfare state from the periphery of the political arena through the power of philanthropy."

She concludes her cogent thesis by saying, "Women played a vital role in the emergence of civil society as well. Through public-private partnerships with local, state, and federal policy-makers, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector enabled an array of groups to claim a place on the public stage. Each group used these activities and institutions in different ways, to achieve often differing ends. We are just beginning to understand the impact of philanthropy in shaping American government and American governance, efforts exemplified by the continuing history of women's compassion and generosity."

There is so much more to learn about philanthropy. Kathleen McCarthy and others are helping us better understand how it has been shaped and by whom and, in turn, how it has shaped all of us. Among the conclusions I draw from these studies are:

1. That as we, as individuals and a society, pursue the creation of opportunity for others, we create unimagined opportunities, personal and professional for ourselves;

2. That in the pursuit of redressing inequity, we force ourselves to challenge assumptions, to think in different ways, and to create new competencies -- be they scientific, administrative, analytical or emotional -- that find far greater and farther reaching applicability; and

3. That the pursuit of philanthropic purposes, if conducted with humility and a selfless objectivity, will prove to be one of the greatest forces in shaping human history in the coming centuries.

Thank you for reading my blog. I wish you a joyous holiday season and endless contentment in the new year.

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