Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg
Some books start with an inspiration, others with a commission. After years of writing about public ethics, social justice and religion, I was approached by a British philanthropist, Trevor Pears, who was conscious that there had not been a major history of English philanthropy written for more than half a century. He offered me a generous research grant from the Pears Foundation to undertake the task. There were to be no restrictions on what I could write. It was, I only later came fully to realize, an object lesson in philanthropy.
Before I could begin work I had to undertake a lecture tour in the United States to promote my previous book on Pope Francis. There, serendipitously, I encountered Professor Ian DeWeese-Boyd at Gordon College in Massachusetts who, over dinner afterwards, turned the conversation from papal politics to philanthropy with stories of how its Greek origins had been recast by Church Fathers like St Basil during the great famine in fourth-century Caesarea. He soon moved on to Aquinas on the relationship between avarice, justice and generosity. I was hooked. Back home I visited the Dominican scholar, Richard Finn, OP, at Blackfriars in Oxford, who opened up the world of almsgiving in the late Roman empire. That sent me back further to the Greeks. I knew then that the book could not confine itself to English philanthropy in isolation.
My initial orientation on the journey from Aristotle to Zuckerberg came from Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, who magnanimously shared her time and expertise to give me some outlines. She introduced me to her colleague Professor Hugh Cunningham whose specialisms include the academic history of philanthropy. Professor Cunningham invited me to a lecture he was giving on ‘John Howard and the Birth of Philanthropy’. It was held in a venue called Dr Williams’s Library, a centre of research on English Dissenters and Protestant nonconformity, where I was taken aback to discover – from the vehemence of the response to some of the other papers presented in the course of the day-long conference – that philanthropy can be denominational and even downright sectarian. But the occasion also opened up a sense of the sheer breadth of philanthropic studies.
At first I grabbed greedily, and unsystematically, at every manifestation of philanthropy which presented itself. The oldest continually working charity in England are the almshouses at The Hospital of St Cross in Winchester, which has been home to a company of elderly Brothers since the 1130s. The Master, Reverend Reg Sweet, together with its Porter and unofficial historian, Catherine Secker, and Senior Brother, John Hodges, extended the ancient hospitality of the place to me. At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe I met Joe Whiteman, the great-great-great-grandson of Andrew Carnegie. Joe was playing his forefather in a musical called The Star-Spangled Scotchman. Both he, and the writer of the show, Ian Hammond Brown, reflected with me on the ambiguity of the robber-baron industrialist who went on to become America’s pioneering philanthropist. In London the Lord Mayor’s Charity Leadership Programme invited me to hear its Giving Lecture in which Sir Ronald Cohen outlined the idea of social impact investing, which showed how far philanthropy had progressed since St Cross was founded in the High Middle Ages.
A disparate collection of individuals helped me pick my way through the philanthropic maze. The then Chairman of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, introduced me to Frank Prochaska, the leading historian on Victorian philanthropy whose work I read with great profit. Conversations with Hugh Cunningham, Beth Breeze, Theresa Lloyd, Eamon Duffy, Clifford Longley, Giles Fraser and Jamie Drummond helped me formulate the plan for this book.
Two moments were nodal in my thinking. The intellectual framework for the modern history of English philanthropy was conceptualized in 1905 by the Unitarian socialist Benjamin Kirkman Gray. It was then adopted by historians from W. K. Jordan (1959) and David Owen (1964) to the contemporary charity expert Rhodri Davies (2016). All unquestioningly accepted Kirkman Gray’s notion that the first 1,000 years of Christian charity had been haphazard, ineffective and focused primarily on saving the soul of the donor – and that it was only after the Reformation that Protestant charity had made philanthropy more rational and systematic. Eamon Duffy – whose work on late medieval Christianity had overturned the Whiggish orthodoxy among mainstream historians that Catholicism was moribund and unpopular among ordinary people in England before the Reformation – directed me to Brian Pullan. Professor Pullan’s pioneering work on late medieval and early modern charity showed that it was economic forces, not religious ones, which brought about key changes in attitudes to the poor. The research of subsequent historians reinforced that view. But, for reasons this book has explored, this key development never found its way into histories of philanthropy. The work of Pullan et al allowed me to conclude that something vital had been lost from philanthropy at that point in history. Professor Pullan was most generous in his time with me, even reading the early chapters of this book and offering a raft of helpful suggestions.
The second moment of epiphany came from the realization that modern philanthrocapitalism – and Peter Singer’s philosophy of Effective Altruism in which it is rooted – is the inheritor of that sixteenth-century deficiency. Indeed, it has exacerbated it. Exactly why this is so came to my mind after conversations with Cheryl Chapman of City Philanthropy, the philosopher and priest Giles Fraser, and Archbishop Rowan Williams. They all deepened my doubts about what Chapman had called a ‘philanthropy by numbers’, which she insisted ‘doesn’t add up’ – but which increasingly dominates contemporary philanthropic thinking. That created a determination in me to seek out a philanthropy which is less impoverished and reductive and, instead, returns to a healthier and more holistic vision of philanthropy as a reciprocal relationship between donor, recipient and wider society.
Justin Forsyth and Laurie Lee, whom I met in 10 Downing Street when I was seconded to the Prime Minister’s Commission for Africa, offered shrewd counsel from their straddling of the worlds of government, charity and international organizations. Laurie, with his years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, offered subtle caveats to both the public praise and the deprecation of Gates. Thanks to Graham Young for advice on Fair Trade and much else.
My thanks, too, to Professor David Hulme of the Global Development Institute in Manchester; David McCoy, Professor of Global Public Health at Queen Mary University London; Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford; Elaine Graham, Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester; Jamie Woodward, Professor of Geography at the University of Manchester; Jane Leek and Bernadette McClew at Porticus; Joanne Hay of Teens & Toddlers; Carmel McConnell of Magic Breakfast; Martin Cottingham at Islamic Relief; Conor O’Clery formerly of the Irish Times; and John Cassidy at the New Yorker. Thanks also to the University of Manchester for my honorary senior fellowship at the Global Development Institute which has given me institutional access to libraries worldwide.
Particular thanks to my son Thomas, who broke away from his own history syllabus to assist my research, making forays into then-alien medieval territory to inform me on the Humiliati, the Jacquerie, the Poor Men of Lyons and the Peasants’ Revolt. Tom’s cousin Sam Woodward, likewise, took time from his studies in Classics to assist me with the finer points of ancient Greek as I wrestled with the first philosophers of philanthropy. Thanks too to my brothers Martin and Tony Vallely and Martin Hall for helping shape my thinking on philanthropy after the pandemic.
My editor at Bloomsbury, Robin Baird-Smith, supported me with unfailing confidence and extraordinary patience as a two-year project extended to six years. Jamie Birkett laboured diligently to get the text and the cover of the book right, through endless iterations in which the faces peeking through the title shifted character and shape. My copy-editor Richard Mason assiduously combed the text and pointed out a host of infelicities and inconsistencies. Any mistakes remain my own.
I am most grateful to the philanthropists and thinkers who agreed to be interviewed to add a contemporary dimension to each historical chapter. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Jonathan Ruffer, Naser Haghamed, John Studzinski, Rowan Williams, David Sainsbury, Bob Geldof, Trevor Pears, Rajiv Shah, Ian Linden, Richard Branson, Chris Oechsli, Ngaire Woods, Patrick Gaspard, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Lenny Henry and Kevin Cahill all gave liberally of their time; almost every interview ran well over the time their offices had allotted. And thanks to Jamie Drummond of ONE.org who kindly approached numerous leading philanthropists on my behalf.
I have been fortunate in my friends. Ian Johnson, formerly of the World Bank and the Club of Rome, offered insights on the interplay between philanthropy and international development. Paddy Coulter of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative read the latter chapters of the book and made acute observations. Malcolm Raeburn, my companion since our days as philosophy undergraduates, was a perceptive sounding-board; during the all-too-frequent longueurs in the football at Old Trafford, he sharpened my distinctions between the spiritual and economic realities of medieval life and their resonances in modern philanthrocapitalism.
My better half, Christine Morgan, has not only put up with my continual abandonment of domestic life as I returned constantly to my study, she also read the book chapter by chapter and offered steadfast encouragement, gentle correctives and wise advice. Her intuitions are unfailingly sound. Nothing would be so good without her.
Philanthropy is far more than the impulse of one driven individual. That is both the message of this book, and the story of its making.
“Timely and fascinating,” PETER HENNESSY Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary, University of London
“The definitive book on philanthropy – a deep and probing study of an increasingly powerful force in our world,” JOHN GRAY Emeritus Professor of European Thought, London School of Economics
“Good books lay out the lie of the land. Important books change it. This book does both... Paul Vallely insists that giving needs to restore its spiritual dimension whereby the giver respects the one who receives,” GILES FRASER priest and philosopher
“Magisterial ... the best single volume on the ideas that have shaped philanthropy ... stuffed with astonishing stories and illuminating interviews," ROB REICH Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.
“Comprehensive and panoramic” BETH BREEZE Director of the Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent
"Deeply researched and wonderfully written ... a powerful call for philanthropy to do a better job of melding empathy with effectiveness" DAVID CALLAHAN, Editor of Inside Philanthropy