9 March 2021

In this episode we talk to Professor Sir David Cannadine about history, philanthropy and his forthcoming book on the history of the Ford Foundation. Among David’s many public roles he is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, President of the British Academy, Chair of Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery and a Trustee of the Wolfson Foundation; and in a wide ranging conversation we discuss:

Involvement in philanthropy

  • What insights has involvement with many charities, foundations and public institutions given about the strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities of philanthropy?
  • What value has historical insight brought to these practical roles?
  • There is currently a lot of controversy over the commemoration of historical figures, including many philanthropic donors, as well as the sources of historical wealth. Why is it important for philanthropic organisations to engage with potentially problematic elements of their history, and how can they navigate some of the challenges this may bring?

Studying the history of philanthropy

  • Do academic historians think in terms of charity or philanthropy as a standalone thematic area of study, or are they more likely to think of it in the context of a particular period or a wider theme (e.g. welfare)?
  • If it is thought of as a thematic area in its own right, is it one that has been sufficiently well-studied?
  • Is the study of the history of philanthropy (even in the UK) too US-focussed; dominated by the great industrial donors of the Gilded Age? Does this lead us to under-appreciate the UK’s own history of philanthropy?
  • Does “archival inequality” mean that we end up focusing more on institutions and big name donors when we study history (as they tend to leave more records), at the expense of the huge numbers of ‘everyday’ donors whose giving may well go unseen? Does this skew our view of the development of philanthropy?

The history of the Ford Foundation

  • Why is it worth studying the role of an institution like the Ford Foundation?
  • Is the history of the Ford Foundation merely the history of a single institution or does it bring to light wider truths about philanthropy?
  • The history of the Ford Foundation contains many fascinating characters (e.g. McGeorge Bundy or Paul Ylvisaker). Is the role of these “philanthropoids” (i.e. people who work in foundations, rather than donors) an under-researched area of the history of philanthropy?
  • The question of the relationship between foundations and social movements (especially in the context of racial justice) is once again a major area of debate. What, if anything, can we learn from the Ford Foundation’s experiences in this area, which have seemingly won both praise and criticism?
Professor Sir David Cannadine PBA is an author, historian and President of The British Academy.

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About the Giving Thought podcast

The Giving Thought podcast is an exploration of trends in global philanthropy and civil society. Launched in 2017 it is recognised as an insightful and influential source of philanthropic debate.  Rhodri Davies director of our Giving Thought Think Tank hosts the podcast, discussing contemporary issues and interviewing sector experts. Episodes are also available free on iTunes and Libsyn.

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