Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


3 March 2016

As an avid reader, I thought it would be good to do something to mark World Book Day. And having recently published my first book (Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain), which looks at the history of philanthropy in the UK and what it can tell us about the role of modern philanthropy and the challenges it faces, I thought it might make sense to share a list of my favourite books on the history of philanthropy.

There are many books on philanthropy, but they tend to be about how to do it in practice (i.e. fundraising, grantmaking, impact measurement etc.) and are likely to be found in the management section of a bookshop. The history of philanthropy, by contrast, is a subject that has received little attention, particularly in relation to its importance as theme in the overall social history of Britain and many other countries.

Which is not to say that there is no literature: there are in fact some great books on the history of philanthropy, but you might struggle to find them, as some are out of print and others are academic tomes that practitioners and interested non-experts may never come across. Hence this list. These are some of the books I came across in researching my own book that I thought most deserved a wider audience. Some of them are easier to get hold of than others, but you should be able to find second-hand copies of them floating around on the internet.


1 English Philanthropy 1660-1960 by David Owen (1964).

 This, in my opinion, is the best overall book on the history of philanthropy in Britain. What you might lose in depth due to the broad time period covered is more than made up for by Owen’s highly readable prose and the wealth of great stories and quotes to be found within. A must read.

2 Philanthropy in England 1480-1660 by W.K. Jordan (1959). 

An obvious companion to Owen’s book, as it covers the preceding 200 years or so, and is one of the classic tomes on the emergence of “modern philanthropy” following the Reformation and the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism. It is important to point out that if this is a masterpiece, it is a flawed one: many historians have subsequently taken issue with Jordan’s use of data and the strength of his conclusions, but if you read it with that in mind it still contains a wealth of great material.

3 Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century by Donna T. Andrew (1989).

A much more recent (and shorter!) book, with a narrower focus. It is worth noting that the word “police” in the title is a bit misleading as it not being used in the modern sense of law enforcement, but rather in an older sense which refers to “a broader maintenance of social order.” (It seems like an odd choice of title given that, but that’s academics for you…) It is also slightly harder work to read that the previous two, as it is essentially an expanded PhD thesis, but definitely worth sticking with as it has some great historical insights.

4 A History of English Philanthropy: From the dissolution of the monasteries to the taking of the first census by Benjamin Kirkman Gray (1905). 

An intriguing one this, as it is a history of philanthropy as written back in 1905, just at the end of the Victorian era. (Which also means that it is out of copyright and can be accessed for free here). The author brings his own fairly obvious socialist beliefs to the table, so you have to read it through that lens, but it contains many fascinating examples and is also of interest as a contemporary perspective on Victorian philanthropy.

5 Report of the Committee on the Law and Practice relating to Charitable Trusts (The Nathan Committee) (1952). 

A bit less obvious, this one: it is the report of a committee set up shortly after the creation of the welfare state, ostensibly to consider the role of charitable trusts, but in practice it actually took a far wider and more interesting look at the role of philanthropy and voluntary action. It is incredibly prescient in places, and offers a fascinating glimpse of thinking about philanthropy in the early years of the welfare state.

6 History of the Law of Charity 1532-1827 by Gareth Jones (1969). 

OK, so I’m not going to beat about the bush on this one – it is hard work to read. But it is worth persevering with as it offers probably the best account of the development of the law relating to charity in the UK, which has obviously played a pretty major role in shaping philanthropy. (It really is quite hard going though…)

7 The Culture of Giving: Informal Support and Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England by Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos (2008). 

Just to show that being hard to read is not the preserve of old books; we have this mighty recent tome which considers philanthropy and charitable giving in the wider context of other forms of gift-giving. It might present a bit of a challenge to the lay reader, as it is written in full academic-speak, but if you can navigate that you will find that the level of scholarship on show will reward you.

8 Citizen, State and Social Welfare in Britain 1830-1990 by Geoffrey Finlayson (1994). 

This is a little bit of a cheat, as the subject matter of this book is wider than philanthropy and considers the history of welfare in a broader sense. However, I make no apologies for including it, as it is an absolutely cracking book- very readable and full of fascinating information. And it is probably the best overview I have found of the issue of the changing nature of the relationship between philanthropy and the state.

9 The Voluntary Impulse: Philanthropy in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska (1990). 

Frank Prochaska is a historian who has specialised to some extent in the study of philanthropy, and has produced a number of books that I could have put on this list. I chose this one because it offers a short, readable introduction to the overall history of philanthropy in Britain and many of the key themes.

10 Cloak of Charity: Studies in Eighteenth Century Philanthropy by Betsy Rodgers (1949).

 Far less analysis in this one than in many others on the list, but it does contain some great, colourful profiles of individual philanthropists from the 18th century, including John Howard, Thomas Coram and Jonas Hanway.

11 Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain by Rhodri Davies (2016). 

I realise that putting your own book on a list like this is a bit gauche, but on the basis that no-one ever got anywhere by being too modest I feel justified. I can also honestly say that if you are interested in the books I have mentioned above but don’t have time to read them/can’t locate them/want to get the gist of them then try reading my book, as I have drawn on all these sources (and more) and tried to put their key points into a readable narrative about the key themes affecting modern philanthropy. You might feel that this gives you enough information, or it might be the thing that spurs you to seek out some of these other sources: either way, I will feel like I have done my job.

If you have read this list and feel outraged that I have left off your favourite book about the history of philanthropy, then please do let me know.