The early part of the 20th century is considered by many to be the golden age of philanthropy. And because so many of the industrialists and financier of that era were, shall we say, complicated individuals, the rise of philanthropy itself was actually a controversial development. A recent article in Philanthropy Magazine explored and tried to debunk what it referred to as the “Seven Myths About the Great Philanthropists.” The article is pretty interesting (if a bit too long to read on an iPhone screen). So, let me summarize.
Myth # 1 – The great philanthropists were robber barons.
Fact: They were merely very aggressive businessmen who pushed the envelope of technological process. Because of that, they may have been a bit, ahem, ruthless in their dealings with both friend and foe but, according to the author, to classify them as robber barons is demeaning. “Whatever else may be said of them – and there is much to be said – they created real and enduring wealth. Moreover, the wealth they created benefited all Americans.” By definition, robber barons get rich by extorting payments that yield no value, leaving everyone else a little poorer.
Myth # 2 – The great philanthropists were free market purists.
Fact: Although they perhaps liked to think of themselves that way, most of them were not above seeking and demanding government help and protection. Example – James Wharton, who endowed the business school that bears his name at the University of Pennsylvania, stipulated in his deed of gift that the “right and duty of national self-protection must be firmly asserted and demonstrated” and that “forfeiture shall occur upon the failure or unwillingness” of the school to teach a protectionist curriculum. I don’t think Mr. Wharton would have been a fan of NAFTA.
Myth # 3 – The great philanthropists were simplistic businessmen, not serious thinkers.
Fact: Talk about painting with an overly broad brush! The author gives a number of examples to prove otherwise. My two cents – You can’t amass a fortune, particularly from nothing, if you aren’t endowed with serious gray matter. Enough said.
Myth # 4 – The great philanthropists used charity to control the working class.
Fact: This is a bit of a communist argument gone awry. “….to borrow the language of the Marxists, the great philanthropists did hope to find a bourgeois solution to the proletarian problem. Some of them were quite explicit about their desire to use philanthropy to undercut communist influences in the labor movement. But at a more profound level, the great philanthropists hoped to use their resources to turn the working class into the middle class….. the Marxists were wrong to see philanthropy as an instrument of exploitation. It was an invitation to opportunity — placing, as Carnegie famously put it, within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring could rise.” And how is this bad?
Myth # 5 – The great philanthropists turned to charity out of vanity.
Fact: The author’s argument is a bit weak here. His examples lead one to believe that vanity often was a motivator. My argument is “so what?” Focus on the good that charity accomplishes. If a donor’s ego is stroked a bit in the process we shouldn’t complain.
Myth # 6 – The great philanthropists turned to charity out of guilt.
Fact: Really? Guilt about what? No one in the Gilded Age ever felt the need to apologize for the accumulation of wealth. And many of the great philanthropists did not turn to philanthropy in retirement; it was a lifelong habit started with a few of the first pennies ever earned. So, where’s the guilt??
Myth # 7 – The greatest achievement of the great philanthropists was to establish perpetual foundations with professional staffs.
Fact: “Surely it cannot be an accident that the Rockefeller Foundation achieved so much during its namesake’s lifetime [more than it did after his death]. Leadership, it seems, accounts for much of the difference…….Did Rockefeller and Carnegie change the course of American philanthropy by creating their foundations? Undeniably yes. Their efforts helped launch the field of professional philanthropy. Is it the case….that their foundations have distributed their wealth with ‘greater intelligence and vision that the donors themselves could hope to possess?’ That is much less clear. The great philanthropists, it turns out, were truly great at philanthropy.”