Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

Share this blog

Past Caring: Why Study the History of Philanthropy?

4 December 2020

I was recently asked to speak at a seminar to mark the launch of the new UK Philanthropy Archive at the University of Kent, about why we should study the history of philanthropy. As someone who is sufficiently sold on the merits of charity history not only to have written a book about the subject, but also to have set up an entire twitter feed dedicated to it, I might not be the most objective commentator... However, I tried to think through what it is about historical context and insight that I have found rewarding and useful in my work as a practitioner over the years, and what this has taught me about the potential value for others working in the field of philanthropy.

Here, then, are some thoughts.


The Shoulders of Giants

Let’s start with something relatively straightforward and positive: learning about history brings an appreciation of the rich lineage behind much of what we currently do in the philanthropy and charity world. It reassures us that we are not alone, and do not have to start entirely from scratch when it comes to facing challenges or looking for opportunities. This is one of the great benefits of studying history for practitioners in any field: the feeling it gives of being part of something much larger than ourselves, which was around before us and will last long after. It also brings the reassurance of knowing that we are often “standing on the shoulders of giants”, which is (to my mind at least) very comforting.

In addition to the general benefit we can get from appreciating charity history in the round, understanding the details of particular stories of philanthropists, organisations and events can also be valuable for practitioners. They can act as examples to remind us of the power & potential of philanthropy when done well. At a time when philanthropy is undergoing a period of intense scrutiny and criticism (albeit one that is not unprecedented, as we find when we look back at history!), this kind of reminder can help to keep those of us working in the field motivated and determined to ensure that as much modern philanthropy as possible reflects the best aspects of what has gone before.



Historical examples are not just useful for reminding us of the theoretical value of philanthropy. They can also provide us with opportunities to learn directly from the past. This may be about learning what to do: in terms of finding approaches to fundraising, giving and organising that we have forgotten & can take elements from or reinvent to use in a modern context. Organisations like the Salvation Army and Barnardo’s, for instance, exhibited a level of branding nous and commercial opportunism in the late 19th century that would make many modern charities sit up and take notice (as detailed in Roddy, Strange & Taithe, The Charity Market and Humanitarianism in Britain, 1870-1912, which you can read for free here).

Conversely, learning from the past may be more about what not to do. One clear benefit of hindsight is that it provides us with the perspective to see unintended negative consequences play out, which can hopefully help us avoid making similar mistakes in the present. An example here is the curious history of Victorian “voting charities”: these were charitable institutions which allowed their supporters to exercise direct say over who the beneficiaries of donations would be. These were motivated by a desire to overcome the perceived anti-democratic nature of “expert intermediaries”, and return to a “truer” form of charity by putting donor and recipient back in close contact. However, the voting was done through raucous and degrading events - which Sir Charles Trevelyan lamented to the Times in 1874 managed to combine “the excitements of the racecourse and the Stock Exchange, with some of the worst practices of the old electioneering system”. There were also many perverse incentives at play when it came to selecting recipients, which led Florence Nightingale to criticise voting charities as “the best system for electing the least eligible.” (You can read more about the fascinating history of voting charities here).

What is the modern relevance of this, you may ask? As digital giving and crowdfunding platforms drive a process of disintermediation within philanthropy that is seeing people increasingly being able to give to other individuals rather than to organisations, there are concerns about the dangers of human bias (both implicit and explicit) when it comes to choosing recipients. There is already clear evidence, for instance, that in medical crowdfunding donors exhibit a bias towards recipients from the same racial group as them, or that recipients with stronger existing networks on social media are more likely to be successful. Whilst the history of Victorian voting charities will not provide answers to all these questions, it does offer valuable context about how they have emerged and been dealt with before. (You can read more on what we can learn from the past about the challenges and opportunities of tech-driven disintermediation in our CAF paper Networking Opportunities: Rediscovering decentralisation in philanthropy & civil society?)

It is of course vitally important – in these examples, and others - not to overstate the extent to which we can learn directly from history. There are always contextual factors that complicate any potential analogy, and often as many dissimilarities as similarities. However, if we are clear about these caveats, there is definitely plenty we can learn.



Philanthropy is a field in which barely five minutes goes by without an approach or trend being proclaimed “new” or “unprecedented”. One good reason, therefore, to learn more history is that it gives an appreciation of the extent to which seemingly “new” phenomena often tend to have clear antecedents, which can help us to overcome unwarranted neophilia or ”shiny new toy syndrome”.

For example, if anyone claims that the aim of combining social and financial return within impact investing approaches is new, you could perhaps point them towards the rich tradition of “percentage philanthropy” in the late Victorian/ Edwardian era, in which figures like Octavia Hill and Edward Guinness used philanthropic capital to build social housing that was then rented at sub-market rates to working class tenants. Or the next time someone at a buzzy conference declares that modern philanthropists are “different” because they want to take a “business-like” or “rational” approach, you could politely bring up the 19th century history of the Charity Organization Society movement and the subsequent Scientific Philanthropy approach that was prominent in early 20th century US philanthropy.

Learning more about the history of philanthropy is not, however, just about coming up with historical comparisons to deflate over-enthusiastic claims of (even if being “that guy” can be quite fun). It can also help in the opposite direction: to identify when an approach or trend might be genuinely new. For instance, is the total cause agnosticism and “egoless” philanthropy espoused by the Effective Altruism movement something we haven’t seen before? (As discussed in this episode of the CAF Giving Thought podcast) Likewise, although social movements are not a new phenomenon, is technology enabling them to operate at a scale and speed that is genuinely unprecedented? (As we explore in this CAF discussion paper).



It is not just the content of history that is useful: the process of taking a historical view in itself brings value, by allowing us to develop a wider perspective. This is particularly useful when it comes to philanthropy, as it is inherently something that combines the micro (i.e. individual donors/acts of giving) & the macro (philanthropy as a method of societal redistribution/means for achieving social progress). As Reich, Cordelli and Bernholz put it:

Philanthropy can refer both to actions and institutions. We can think of philanthropy both as a form of individual giving and as a complex economic and policy structure – as the institutionalized practice of privately funding the production of public benefits. If regarded from the first, agential perspective, philanthropy stands apart from other forms of giving, such as gift-giving to friends and family, and from spending for private consumption. If looked at from the second, structural perspective, it stands apart from alternative, institutionalized mechanisms of finance, such as taxation or market exchange.”

It can be difficult to switch between these two viewpoints from within the current moment, so by allowing us to step outside of this moment and take a longer view, history gives us a great way of understanding their interplay.

This micro/macro nature of philanthropy also highlights another challenge; which is that as a topic of study philanthropy cuts across traditional academic disciplines. If you start digging into the theory behind philanthropy, you very quickly find yourself needing to get to grips with psychology, economics, political science, theology, law, philosophy and many other fields of study. This makes it endlessly interesting (or at least, I think so!), but it can also make it hard to retain focus or clarity. History is once again invaluable here, as it provides a great general lens through which to bring in a range of perspectives on philanthropy whilst still maintaining structure.



Looking to the past is very useful in helping to identify key recurrent themes and questions that have always arisen in relation to charity and philanthropy. These can often be linked (with the usual caveats about contextual factors) to modern debates; so understanding what commentators in the past - from politicians and philosophers to poets and journalists - said about these issues can offer us valuable insights. (Furthermore, I have found that when making a point it never hurts to find a version of it made by a suitably eloquent historical figure!)

There are many clear examples of recurrent themes in the history of philanthropy, and consequently there are useful sources of insight about them from different eras. For example, the question of what to do with so-called “tainted donations” that come from ethically or morally dubious sources is one that has come to the fore in recent years in light of controversies over the donations of the Sackler family (following their role in the opioid addiction scandal) and the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, as well as concerns over the historical links of various pots of philanthropic wealth to the slave trade. But it is very far from a new concern: as far back as the 8th century the Venerable Bede was raising concerns about wealthy people who gave generously to the poor but did so from “goods unjustly plundered or otherwise extracted through force or cruelty”. Much more recently, the question of what charities should do with tainted donations was a source of fairly constant debate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth famously (but possibly apocryphally) said “The only problem with tainted donations is t’aint enough of them…”, while George Bernard Shaw based his play Major Barbara around the ethical dilemmas presented for his title character by a donation to the Salvation Army from her estranged arms manufacturer father. (For more, you can listen to this episode of the CAF Giving Thought podcast – which has the seal of approval from Professor Mary Beard, no less! – or check out this blog on “Statues, Slavery and Tainted Donations”).

Similarly, the question of how charity relates to demands for justice, and what this means in terms of the differing roles of social movements and philanthropic organisations, is a major source of debate currently. Yet, when you realise that this has always been one of the defining questions about the nature and role of charity, and that it has taxed the minds of many great thinkers ─ from ancient Jewish scholars to enlightenment figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and Immanuel Kant, to more modern thinkers like Martin Luther King − then you feel both reassured that there is a body of knowledge to draw upon and a bit less bad for not being able to come up with a definitive answer yourself. (For more great quotes on charity and justice, check out this twitter thread).



The birds-eye view that history affords is also useful in understanding how philanthropy sits within wider society. Seeing how narratives and views of giving have evolved over time gives invaluable context for understanding current critiques (i.e. their origins, how they reflect wider political/social factors etc). A historical view brings to light the fact that many philanthropy/charity themes that we might view as “niche” are really nothing of the sort: in fact they have at many times been central in shaping the overall nature of society.

For instance, concerns about the limitations of charitable responses when it came to dealing with the changing nature of poverty in an increasingly urbanised society were fundamental in shaping the nature of state welfare in the UK. Likewise concerns about the potential anti-democratic power of voluntary associations to subvert the will of a democratically-elected government were a major source of debate during the formation of the USA.

Understanding how philanthropy fits within the context of wider society throughout history can also enable us to identify gaps, in terms of groups or communities whose voices and perspectives might be missing in narratives about charity. This is important; not only because through addressing these gaps we can enrich our understanding of history, but also because it might help us to identify which voices we may be missing today when it comes to practice and policymaking in the field of philanthropy.



History is a powerful rhetorical tool, and is often used to make arguments sound more compelling. When politicians and other commentators have reason to opine about philanthropy and charity, they may well reach for historical examples to lend weight to their point of view. The problem is that the historical understanding on show in these kinds of arguments is often highly selective or incorrect. The history of philanthropy remains a relatively niche concern even within the wider discipline of history, so it is perhaps unsurprising that general commentators tend to have limited knowledge of the subject. However, if such people have powerful platforms from which to put forth their views then it is a problem if they are able to misuse history and go unchallenged.

In my experience this is one of the clearest practical reasons why greater knowledge of history is useful for those working in the charity and philanthropy sectors: as it is only by arming ourselves with our own knowledge we can counter wrong claims made by those who want to use history to support their own agendas.

For example, many recent criticisms of the National Trust have been accompanied by forthright claims that in taking some particular action the Trust is “contravening its original purpose”. But when you actually look at the history of the National Trust, it becomes pretty evident that its purpose and its role within our society have shifted markedly over time, and have also been contentious right from the start. (As this recent article in History Today ably demonstrates) Similarly in debates about tax reliefs on charitable donations, people will confidently assert various different justifications and look to history to back up their case; when in actual fact the history of these reliefs is a complex tale of unintended consequences and happenstance, with little in the way of clear principle or theoretical frameworks on show. (For more on the details of this story, see here).

History is also used and abused to make more fundamental points about the role of charity in society. A good example of this can be found in current narratives that criticise charities for being “too political”. These narratives often imply that campaigning by charities is somehow a new phenomenon; and one that sits at odds with a supposed “historical role” of charities as organisations solely concerned with delivering services to address the symptoms of societal ills. In reality, however, campaigning for social reform to address the underlying causes of issues has always been an equally important role for charitable organisations. In fact, many of the things that most people would cite as the greatest historical examples of progress in our society – from the abolition of slavery and the ending of child labour, to the extension of the vote to women and the decriminalisation of homosexuality – were heavily reliant in one way or another on voluntary action (as I argued at length in my book, in this article for HistPhil, and in a recent paper on the history of philanthropy and social movements).



Finally, for me one of the most powerful things a historical view can offer is an understanding of the extent to which our current context is not inevitable; and is in fact only one of many possible contexts that could have arisen. This is a useful reminder in general, but more specifically we can sometimes identify “turning points” at which there were particularly high degrees of contingency & then extrapolate to think through ways in which things could have developed differently from then on.

It would be easy to dismiss this as little more than a parlour game, but when it comes to thinking about policy measures (which is my day job) these kinds of counterfactuals are actually incredibly useful. For one thing, it can help to expand the limits of what you think is possible in the present (because you are more aware of the extent to which the way things are is not the same as they way they could have been). But perhaps even more importantly, they can provide a rich domain of ideas when it comes to envisioning possible futures. As we begin to emerge from a major pandemic crisis that has shaken so many of our assumptions, it feels more important than ever that civil society gets better at thinking about the future; and looking back to the past can be a vital part of doing that effectively.



As a practitioner, whether you’re looking for ideas for fundraising, trying to find inspiration for policy proposals, needing to counter other people’s use of history as a rhetorical tool, or simply wanting to get a better sense of how what you do fits into the big picture; studying the history of philanthropy is not only hugely rewarding- I would go as far as to suggest it is absolutely vital.

However, awareness of this history is currently patchy at best. This is partly a problem within academia itself, where philanthropy – as an inherently cross-disciplinary area of study – often falls into the gaps between existing academic siloes (although this is getting better, as more purpose-built academic centres on philanthropy emerge and hopefully new initiatives like the UK Philanthropy Archive will help to propel the study of the history of philanthropy further than ever before). But there is also a wider problem with the interface between academia and practice when it comes to charity and philanthropy; where so much potentially valuable knowledge and insight (on both sides) is not shared because the infrastructure for enabling this to happen is lacking.

In terms of history, I know from my own experience that there is actually a vast amount of rich content out there - but it is mostly hidden away in books and journals that are often either eye-wateringly expensive or inaccessible. And whilst some of what is hidden away is immediately rewarding for anyone who manages to find it, some of it definitely requires further interpretation to make it accessible and relevant to practitioners. In other fields, there is a whole ecosystem of organisations (or individuals) who sit in the space between academia and practice, and help to ensure cross-pollination; and whilst this is not entirely lacking in the philanthropy world (e.g.in the case of history there are great resouces like HistPhil)  there is definitely a need for more of it.

That is one of the main reasons I have been doing what I can for the last few years to bring some of the academic and historical material I have found to a wider practitioner audience. I have tried to do that by adding a historical slant to a lot of policy work I have been involved with; but also through experimenting with different formats such as podcasts, twitter threads, GIFs and animations that offer ways of presenting material in accessible (and sometimes downright silly) ways.

There is definitely room for far more to be done to bring the historical side of charity and philanthropy to a wider audience, and a huge opportunity to enhance our overall knowledge base simply by joining the dots between what is already out there. Funders, infrastructure bodies and academic networks could play a key role here, so I would love to see more of them focus on harnessing the benefits of a historical viewpoint when it comes to philanthropy. And in the meantime, I’ll get on with making some more GIFs...


Public Good by Private Means

Rhodri Davies' book tells the story of philanthropy through the ages, and examines the relationship between philanthropists, the state and society.

Place-Based Giving campaign

Understanding and tackling the challenges facing our communities.


Our project to create a world where new technologies and social trends have a positive impact on the future of civil society.