Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission

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Overview

Philanthropy has existed in various forms in all cultures and civilizations throughout history, yet most people know little about it and its distinctive place in our lives. Why does philanthropy exist? Why do people so often turn to philanthropy when we want to make the world a better place? In essence, what is philanthropy? These fundamental questions are tackled in this engaging and original book. Written by one of the founding figures in the field of philanthropic studies, Robert L. Payton, and his former student sociologist Michael P. Moody, Understanding Philanthropy presents a new way of thinking about the meaning and mission of philanthropy. Weaving together accessible theoretical explanations with fascinating examples of philanthropic action, this book advances key scholarly debates about philanthropy and offers practitioners a way of explaining the rationale for their nonprofit efforts.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Philanthropy UK Nwsltr
Payton and Moody’s book is an extended argument that philanthropy is an interesting and important subject that deserves to be better understood and to be taken more seriously. Apart from the usual gripe from this side of the Atlantic that the authors also take themselves a little too seriously, it does largely fulfil its stated aim, although UK readers should brace themselves for a relentlessly upbeat approach and repetition of the mystifyingly widespread view that America invented philanthropy.

A toe-curling moment appears in the first few pages when a description of an impressive woman named Oseola McCarty who, despite being poor herself, lived frugally and donated a large sum to support needy African-American students at the University of Southern Mississippi, is concluded with the rhetorical question, "Do such things happen in other countries?" Errr, yes! The ‘horizontal philanthropy’ of poor-to-poor is perhaps more universal than the ‘vertical philanthropy’ of rich-to-poor that can only arise in societies containing great inequalities of wealth. Fortunately such patriotic asides desist as the book progresses and are replaced with more thoughtful reflections on the way that unique philanthropic traditions emerge in different societies, dependent on their cultural and historical contexts.

Much of the first half of the book revolves around defining key terms and dissecting the differences between apparent synonyms such as ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy’. Having successfully cleared a path through the thicket of definitional tangles, the book moves onto meatier questions regarding the rationale for philanthropy’s existence, its relationship to other forms of assistance and the practicalities of undertaking philanthropic action.

Whilst the authors, being openly pro-philanthropic, are clear that philanthropy is the answer, they do not shy from addressing the obvious retort, ‘what is the question?’ In a beautiful demonstration of Occam’s Razor (the principle which states the best theories are those expressed most succinctly and simply), the authors argue that, "Philanthropy exists because of two truths about the human condition: things often go wrong and things could always be better". The philanthropic tradition is then described as the history of the response to these two facts.

Grand claims are made about the possibilities inherent in philanthropic action, with philanthropy variously described as essential to democracy, the locus of society’s moral agenda and "our best hope to make the world better". Yet the authors readily acknowledge the existence of alternative responses when things go wrong and situations need to be improved. Self-help, mutual aid and government assistance are discussed as options to be considered before initiating a philanthropic response. The aftermath of the terror acts of 9/11 is used to demonstrate the happy co-existence of all four types of response whilst Hurricane Katrina is offered as proof that sometimes philanthropy is all that can fill voids created when people have no resources to help themselves and government lacks the capacity or will to respond adequately; in such cases "philanthropy makes sense because all else has failed or because other responses will take too long or are incomplete".

Whilst government and market failure often feature in theories of the voluntary sector – implying that philanthropy is the ‘fall-back option’ – this book usefully highlights that philanthropic acts have a positive comparative advantage because they are defined by morality, whereas governments are defined by ‘power’ and business by ‘wealth’. Such sweeping generalisations inevitably invite debate; many people enter politics to implement moral ideas and many businesspeople-turned-philanthropists would argue that wealth creation was a necessary precursor to their later generosity. But defining the ‘big idea’ of each sector in such stark terms enables the authors to develop stimulating ideas around the notion that philanthropy is the expression of the ‘moral imagination’ and a means for individuals to shape and advance the moral agenda of society.

Whilst this all sounds rather abstract, philanthropists will find much of practical use in a chapter on the practicalities of undertaking philanthropic action that acknowledges the perils of attempting to intervene voluntarily in other people’s lives for their benefit. The authors begin by pointing out the difficulties in abiding by two apparently opposed social norms – that we should help others and that we should also mind our own business – and suggests these can be reconciled with the help of three guiding principles. Firstly, ‘seek to do good but do no harm’ in order to avoid the unintended consequences when bad results flow from good intentions. Secondly, to ‘give all you can’ when weighing the claims of others against your own needs. And thirdly, to ‘give back and pass it on’ to repay the philanthropy we have all, at some point, received and to ensure that the tradition of philanthropy is stewarded and preserved for future generations.

The need to be good stewards of the philanthropic tradition occupies the entire concluding chapter, which – staying true to the book’s title – advocates better understanding of philanthropy as the surest route to defending its essential roles in key democratic tasks such as defining, advocating and achieving the public good, advancing the general welfare and responding when things go wrong. Such seriously ambitious goals perhaps ultimately justify the authors’ occasionally serious and self-important tone.Beth Breeze, Publications Editor, Philanthropy UK Nwsltr, September 2008, Issue 34

— Beth Breeze, Publications Editor

Philanthropy UK Newsletter
"Payton and Moody’s book is an extended argument that philanthropy is an interesting and important subject that deserves to be better understood and to be taken more seriously.... [The book] advocates better understanding of philanthropy as the surest route to defending its essential roles in key democratic tasks such as defining, advocating and achieving the public good, advancing the general welfare and responding when things go wrong." —Beth Breeze, Publications Editor, Philanthropy UK Newsletter, September 2008

— Beth Breeze, Publications Editor

Aspen Institute's Aspen Philanthropy Letter
"... Payton and Moody write that scholars and practitioners need to present a more sophisticated explanation of the unique contributions philanthropy makes or should make. And the field needs to be considered 'warts and all': confronting honestly and fairly the bad as well as the good, the failures as well as the successes." —Doug Rule, Aspen Institute's Aspen Philanthropy Letter, March 2009

— Doug Rule

Michael O'Neill

"Robert Payton's decades of philanthropic leadership and humanistic reflection and Michael Moody's social science skills and recent research combine to make Understanding Philanthropy a must-read. This wise and well-written book is one of the best recent publications on philanthropy." —Michael O'Neill, University of San Francisco

Robert Wuthnow

"A bold, thoroughly informed inquiry that challenges readers to think more deeply about the meaning and mission of good works. Written in clear, incisive language, Understanding Philanthropy helps us to understand the multiplicity of philanthropic acts and the fact that we are all affected by them." —Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University

J. B. Schneewind

"There is no one in the country better qualified than Bob Payton to write on this subject. He has more experience in the field and a broader and more sophisticated set of perspectives on it than anyone else I can think of.... And there's no one else who has a better chance of educating the broader public as well." —J. B. Schneewind, Johns Hopkins University

Philanthropy UK Nwsltr - Beth Breeze

"Payton and Moody’s book is an extended argument that philanthropy is an interesting and important subject that deserves to be better understood and to be taken more seriously.... [The book] advocates better understanding of philanthropy as the surest route to defending its essential roles in key democratic tasks such as defining, advocating and achieving the public good, advancing the general welfare and responding when things go wrong." —Beth Breeze, Publications Editor, Philanthropy UK Newsletter, September 2008

Choice - S. N. Katz

This book is the result of an unusual collaboration. Senior author Payton is a former diplomat, university president (Indiana Univ.), and foundation president. He was the founder of the Research Committee of Independent Sector, and later associated with the Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis Center on Philanthropy, so he can be considered the father of the new field of philanthropic studies in the US. Moody, on the other hand, is a recent PhD in cultural sociology (Univ. of Southern California) who is a newcomer to the field. But this unlikely pair has produced a fine volume on the moral meaning and function of philanthropy. Payton has long been an advocate of the moral purposes of philanthropy, and this thoughtful volume makes the case that philanthropy is essential to democratic society. The authors also argue that the subject of philanthropy needs to be incorporated into the collegiate curriculum so that Americans can become more understanding of this crucial element of their political and social heritage. The book is carefully researched and very nicely written. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.S. N. Katz, Princeton University, Choice, April 2009

Aspen Institute's Aspen Philanthropy Letter - Doug Rule

"... Payton and Moody write that scholars and practitioners need to present a more sophisticated explanation of the unique contributions philanthropy makes or should make. And the field needs to be considered 'warts and all': confronting honestly and fairly the bad as well as the good, the failures as well as the successes." —Doug Rule, Aspen Institute's Aspen Philanthropy Letter, March 2009

From the Publisher
"There is no one in the country better qualified than Bob Payton to write on this subject. He has more experience in the field and a broader and more sophisticated set of perspectives on it than anyone else I can think of.... And there's no one else who has a better chance of educating the broader public as well." —J. B. Schneewind, Johns Hopkins University
Choice

"... [T]his unlikely pair has produced a fine volume on the moral meaning and function of philanthropy. Payton has long been an advocate of the moral purposes of philanthropy, and this thoughtful volume makes the case that philanthropy is essential to democratic society. The authors also argue that the subject of philanthropy needs to be incorporated into the collegiate curriculum so that Americans can become more understanding of this crucial element of their political and social heritage. The book is carefully researched and very nicely written. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries." —Choice, April 2009

Choice

"... [T]his unlikely pair has produced a fine volume on the moral meaning and function of philanthropy. Payton has long been an advocate of the moral purposes of philanthropy, and this thoughtful volume makes the case that philanthropy is essential to democratic society. The authors also argue that the subject of philanthropy needs to be incorporated into the collegiate curriculum so that Americans can become more understanding of this crucial element of their political and social heritage. The book is carefully researched and very nicely written. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries." —Choice, April 2009

Philantopic (philanthropy blog)
A "Best Philanthropy-Related Books of 2008" selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253350497
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2008
  • Series: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,286,612
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert L. Payton (1927-2011) was president of C.W. Post College and Hofstra University, a State Department official, ambassador to Cameroon, head of the Exxon Education Foundation, and was the first director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. He is author of Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good.

Michael P. Moody is Assistant Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California. He is a cultural sociologist whose work focuses on the theory and practice of philanthropy.

Indiana University Press

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Introduction: Why This Book?
2. Voluntary Action for the Public Good
3. Because Things Go Wrong: Philanthropy as a Response to the Human Problematic
4. The World Can Be Made Better: Philanthropy as Moral Action
5. The Social History of the Moral Imagination
6. Philanthropy, Democracy, and the Future
Notes
Suggestions for Further Reading
Index

Indiana University Press

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