Those of you wishing to get a sweeping overview of the history of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy in the United States will be well rewarded by reading Philanthropy in America: A History by Oliver Zunz (Princeton University Press, c2012). It “tell[s] the story of the convergence of big-money philanthropy and mass giving that … sustained civil society initiatives over the 20th century in the [U.S.]." The book is part of Princeton’s “Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America” series and focuses on the legal and public policy aspects of the topic.
Zunz tells us that after Congress ratified the 16th Amendment (the levying of income tax) in 1913, the Treasury Department created a single category in the tax code for exempting philanthropies; the exemption in turn nurtured and ultimately entrenched philanthropy in the U.S. It also allowed groups with divergent interests to work together and foster a powerful and well-supported nonprofit sector.
He points out that while the philanthropic sector operates on a much smaller scale than government, the resources available to charities and foundation are large and influential enough that the continual “debate about the proper relationship of government to philanthropy has become a distinctive feature of American society.” Throughout the book, he illustrates the constant dance between politics and civil society, and discusses how Americans of all classes invested an enormous amount of energy in philanthropy while in the process enlarging American democracy.
Chapters take the reader chronologically through time, starting with the period after the Civil War when an unprecedented number of Americans became rich and powerful enough to shape community and national affairs (i.e. John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford). Zunz also examines the coming of mass philanthropy and how it became part of core American values beginning during the Great Depression, important regulatory compromises and their impact, and philanthropy’s ensuing role during the Cold War in 1950s through Civil Rights in the 1960s.
The book ends with an examination of the globalization of U.S. philanthropy: American groups saw opportunities to promote capitalism and civil society as engines of democracy overseas after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A key moment in that transition was the massive response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine, which highlighted America’s special role in international relief. In joining global efforts to end famine, the nonprofit sector "trumped Cold War dynamics" and "claimed its independence from foreign policy." In the final pages, Zunz examines how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation merged the global with the local, focusing on pragmatic solutions to the global public health issues especially regarding the spread of diseases.
There are an extensive amount of other resources on the history of philanthropy and the role of foundations in the U.S. Two recent titles of note include The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth Is Changing the World (Public Affairs, 2007) and American Foundations: Roles and Contributions (Brookings Institution Press. 2010).
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