Remembering the Spiritual History of American Philanthropy

Remembering the Spiritual History of American Philanthropy

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Let me start with a definition: Philanthropy is the joy of other-regarding service coupled with the moral alchemy of turning gold into something better.

Contemplate these words from John D. Rockefeller, the product of small town upstate New York and of a first job as a fledgling merchant in Cleveland:

“I believe the power to make money is a gift from God–just as the instincts for art, music, literature, the doctor’s talent, yours–to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind.” (1906)[1]

Rockefeller emerged from a deeply spiritual Baptist background and understood his life and all lives as gifts from God. He wrote often on the centrality of love for one’s neighbor, who is anyone and everyone in need. He believed in the God-given essential worth of every human being and in his or her capacity to realize unique human potential. He had a folkloric sense of moral accountability for what was done with his wealth. For those who did not quite grasp his actions, which clearly defined a new level of philanthropic magnitude never previously encountered in the history of capitalism, he would answer with this justly famous phrase, “God gave me my money.”

John D. Rockefeller is buried between his wife and mother in Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio, next to the James Garfield Memorial. He had started out in Cleveland, departed reluctantly, and insisted that he lie down in earth with a view of Lake Erie. I have sometimes visited this site, as there are few more lovely, and made it a point to read some useful article to better understand the connection between spirituality, agape love, and philanthropy that Rockefeller in many ways invented. He was to American philanthropy what Martin Luther was to the Protestant Reformation. The life work of the late Mary French Rockefeller was inspired by these same words, “God gave me my money,” and the words carry through now six generations.

In 1835, Alexis de Toqueville, the first European to travel the young United States for purposes of sociologic observation, noted that American philanthropy is unique. It is a free zone that allows people to govern themselves according to a higher moral law of agape love and beneficence to address the problems of the world in terms of a more ultimate justice and compassion.[2] Philanthropy is part of the American fiber; to this day it remains the envy of other countries. Time, talent, and tithe are coupled with free will, discipline, and care to form a community of service. Think of those you know who serve on boards of non-profit organizations, who make gifts, and who share in a community of commitment. By one definition, “Philanthropy includes voluntary giving, voluntary service, and voluntary association, primarily for the benefit of others; it is also the ‘prudent sister’ of charity…”.[3] It focuses on quality of life for all. There is an emphasis on positive achievement and the development of creative capacities. And it is good to have a measure of influence in private hands; without it, voluntary associations and institutions of culture, education, and health care can fade away.

A Weakeninq Philanthropic Tradition?

Can philanthropic altruism as one important expression of unlimited divine agape love survive [without] its spiritual roots? The American philanthropic tradition is healthy–but, like all good things, it is susceptible to erosion. The words of John W. Gardner on leadership are useful:

“A great many of our contemporaries, left without moorings by the disintegration of group norms and torn from any context of shared obligations, have gotten drunk on self. We value the individual. We value individuality. Self-reliance, self-discipline, self-help are honored in our scheme of things. But we cannot respect the crazy celebration of self that one sees today.”[4]

Gardner seems to be getting at what some have called the “culture of narcissism.”

Christopher Lasch wrote his book The Revolt of the Elites to address younger generations of old families of wealth. In the past these families had firm roots in faith traditions and the communities they helped to build. They understood, as a spiritual principle, that wealth carries civic obligations: “Libraries, museums, parks, orchestras, hospitals, and other civic amenities stood as so many monuments to upperclass munificence.”[5]

Any temptation to “withdraw into an exclusive world of their own” was countered by an awareness that “all have derived benefits from their ancestors” and usually, from God; as Horace Mann wrote in 1846, “all are bound, as by an oath, to transmit those benefits, even in an improved condition, to posterity.”[6]

There was a strong assumption against the “arrogant doctrine of absolute ownership” in the wealthy families throughout seaboard cities of New England and in the Old Northwest (the Western Reserve of Ohio, which spawned Rockefeller). Although this point can be debated, and is probably not fully true, Lasch suggests a decline today in the “old-money ethic of civic responsibility.”[7] New elites, he argues, work in a global market with mobile capital, are more migratory than their predecessors, and have lost the idea that they are stewards of wealth rather than its possessors–or so Lasch claims. America’s philanthropic underpinnings are now fragile, he states, for the wealthy have less feeling for their great historical duties. His concern, then, is with the weakening of communities of obligation and commitment, with uprootedness from tissues of common life, and with declining interest in the community and its institutions. He contrasts the life of consumption and immediate gratification with the philanthropic resolve of forebears, who understood that their wealth emerged from communities of ordinary people with meaningful dreams for their families.

Lasch may be too harsh. Many contend that the spirit of philanthropy among the “baby boomer” children of old wealth is alive and well–although this generational cohort is more cautious about the causes it supports and requires clear outcome analysis. Gone are the days of casual philanthropic decisions. Such caution suggests an enhanced sense of responsibility, rather than a diminishment. As Francie Ostrower’s studies suggest, philanthropy “adapts and endures.”[8]

While philanthropy is distinct from the general phenomenon of helping behavior, it is worth noting that general levels of commitment to civic life and community in the United States are high. A February 1997 national poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that 61% of Americans are active to some degree in volunteer work, and many teens are deeply involved in their communities.

We must also consider that the philanthropic spirit was never a defining feature of the relatively young. There is something to be said for the spirituality and wisdom of older adults as the mother of philanthropy. While all cultures have their myths of human immortality, it seems to me fortunate that we are not like the Greek gods and goddesses who, in their immortality, tended toward such drunken and debauched squandering that Plato wished to entirely ban their memory from the ideal Republic. Being mortal is the single greatest encouragement to create lasting and meaningful monuments for all of posterity to enjoy, and through which to be remembered well.

Most of us want to be remembered not for mere moral minimalism (“do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you”), but for a good deal of moral idealism (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Virtually all of our spiritual-religious traditions emphasize this:

*”Speak kindness…show good will.” (Babylonian) *”Men were brought into existence for the sake of men that they might do one another good.” (Cicero, Roman) *”What good man regards any misfortune as no concern of his?” (Juvenal, Roman) *”Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Ancient Jewish)

We find a consistent sense of general duties of beneficence across cultures. This idealism is enhanced by spirituality. On the impact of spirituality and religion, suffice it to cite a Yankelovich survey of American giving in which the most significant factor predicting large donations by individuals is weekly attendance at religious services.[9]

Many Americans have acquired remarkable wealth over the past two decades. Now the question is how they will use it. Many old families of wealth are no longer grounded in their historic communities, and their children may enjoy the gratifications and freedoms of investment profits without much sense of commitment to the common good. Does this mean that our institutions will wither, and that the quality of life for all will fade?

Every potential or established philanthropist must consider when and how much to give. We need to remember. The most significant history of America is the story of how those committed to freedom and to the public good have used wealth to found and maintain institutions of education, health, culture, spirituality, and humanitarian aspiration. It is also a story about millions of people devoting time and energy in small ways to good causes. Our American histories are usually shaped by themes such as politics, culture, expansion, war, and the economy. We need to recognize that the history of this nation is at least as much one of philanthropy as of anything else, and that only through the spirit of philanthropy is there any ultimate hope for a prosperous, pluralistic, democratic future. Government has a vitally important role in responding to the needs of citizens, especially of those in dire need. But we also need philanthropy.

The Role of Spirituality and Family Leqacy

If we do live in an age of narcissism, the remarkable thing is that so many individuals and families act philanthropically. The traditions of philanthropic families seem strong enough to sustain the spirit of giving, and, if today’s events are a measure, to help other families enter into this spirit. As one scholar who has studied philanthropic motives in depth through interview analysis concludes: “Most of the wealthy people we interviewed also cited family tradition as a reason to give to charity. For some, the family had a history of responding to the needs of communities where they had been ‘leading families.'”[10] Next to family history, spirituality and religion are often mentioned, and these features are usually a core aspect of family history.

And, importantly, people want to pass this spiritual tradition of generosity on to their children. Some parents engage their children in volunteer work in adolescence, teach them by modeling a life of service: some involve their children actively in the life of the family foundation, including site visits and responsibility for some small grants.

The Ideas of Stewardship and Human Potential

In conclusion, I wish to discuss two ideas of importance. These are the ideas of stewardship and of human potential.

Stewardship: With respect to American history, sociologist Max Weber long ago pointed out that Protestantism and capitalism are loosely linked. He spoke of the “spirit of capitalism” as “inner-worldly asceticism” and productivity linked to a rather simple life style. Wealth is viewed as an avenue to deeper meanings and purposes, an opportunity for solicitude. In this tradition, those who are blessed with wealth are very consciously aware of their stewardship role in community. “Stewardship” essentially translates into the dictum “wealth is not evil; only squandering it is.”[11] Inner-worldly asceticism is contrasted with other-worldly inattention to the context of daily life. The ethic of philanthropic stewardship is not “give up all that you have to enter heaven.” It focuses deep attention on how wealth is put to responsible use as a gift from God for the benefit of all humanity.

Contrast this ethic of stewardship with the noblesse oblige of antiquity, which understands wealth essentially as an opportunity for consumption. Philanthropia in antiquity was rooted in something like noblesse oblige–throwing out the occasional grape.

Human Potential: The idea of human potential is evident in Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “Wealth.” He rejects “indiscriminate charity” in favor of providing “ladders upon which the aspiring can rise–free libraries, parks, and means of recreation, by which men are helped in body and mind; works of art, certain to give pleasure and improve public taste; and public institutions of various kinds, which will improve the general condition of the people,…”

In current language, we would speak of providing people with opportunities to tap into their human potential. How often do you hear a donor repeating the old saying “To feed someone with a fish for one day is not as helpful as teaching someone to fish and feed himself for a lifetime.”

Yet there is also the tradition of direct charity to care for the immediate needs of the destitute. This response to immediate basic needs, without which no human flourishing in possible, provides a necessary and creative balance to the goal of enhancing human potential. In this dialectic between encouraging long-term self-realization and addressing urgent immediate needs lie the moral quandaries of the philanthropist who must discern what is right. I offer no algorithms because there are none.

It may be useful to recall Rockefeller’s philanthropic ethic, which included these principles as widely cited in the relevant literature:

*build people and institutions to the point of building for themselves *solve root causes of evils *give insofar as possible for work of already demonstrated worth *enjoy the silent approval of conscience rather than human praise.


1 Cited in Jules Abel, The Rockefeller Billions (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 279. 2 See Max L. Stackhouse, “Religion and the Social Space for Voluntary Associations,” in Robert Wuthnow and Virginia A. Hodgkinson, eds., Faith and Philanthropy in America (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990), pp. 22-37, p. 27. 3 Robert L. Payton, cited in Maurice G. Gurin and Jon Van Til, “Philanthropy in Its Historical Context,” in Van Til, ed., Critical Issues in American Philanthropy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990), pp. 3-18, p. 3. 4 John W. Gardner, On Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1990), p. 114. 5 Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 4. 6 Ibid., pp. 4-5. 7 Ibid., p. 5. 8 Francie Ostrower, Why the Wealthy Give: The Culture of Elite Philanthropy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). 9 Yankelovich, Skelly, White, Inc. The Charitable Behavior of Americans Management Survey (Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1986). 10 Teresa Odendahl, “Independent Foundations and Wealthy Donors: An Overview,” in America’s Wealthy and the Future of Foundations, Teresa Odendahl, ed. (New York: The Foundation Center, 1987), pp. 1-26, p. 17. 11 Paul G. Schervish, “Wealth and the Spiritual Secret of Money,” in Faith and Philanthropy in America, pp. 22-37, p. 27.