Opinion
October 19, 2014

Today’s Problems Call for Reviving Charity—and Eliminating the Need for It

Eva Russo/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As head of the Gates foundation, Patty Stonesifer learned to "think big." She took that lesson with her when she became head of a D.C. social-service group.

In his 1889 article "Gospel of Wealth," before Andrew Carnegie instructed his peers on the proper means of disposing of a personal fortune, he first demonstrated the folly of alternative approaches. Don’t leave your money to your children, he insisted. Bequeathing millions to the public at death was also ill-advised. And above all else, avoid giving charity.

"Of every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity," he wrote, "it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent; so spent, indeed as to produce the very evils which it proposes to mitigate or cure." In fact, "one of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity." It would be better to throw one’s money into the sea.

The steel magnate was not alone in bestowing contempt on "so-called charity." At the turn of the last century, nearly all the founders of modern philanthropy did. In fact, they defined the aims of philanthropy largely against the negative reference point of traditional almsgiving; the promotion of the one was premised on the deliberate demotion of the other.

Modern philanthropy would be efficient, whereas most charitable giving was wasteful. Philanthropy would turn its attention to regional, national, and even global problems, while charity’s scope was parochial. Philanthropy would address causes, whereas charitable giving was preoccupied with palliatives. Philanthropy would be governed by the sober calculus of the laboratory and boardroom, whereas most charitable giving was prompted by sentimental impulses. These dichotomies became the rallying cry of a crusade; by extirpating the underlying causes of social ills, the proponents of philanthropy would do away with the need for charity in the first place.

This should all sound very familiar.

Today’s philanthropic leaders still rehearse these polarities. The same great negation lies at the heart of contemporary philanthropic self-identity.

As Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, announced in 2009, "Philanthropy is not charity. Philanthropy works to do away with the causes that necessitate charity." And when in 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation published a history of the institution in honor of its centennial, it was titled "Beyond Charity: a Century of Philanthropic Innovation."

Over the last century, the contrast between the two moral imperatives has helped the philanthropic sector clarify its own distinctive mission. Yet the field has failed to mine that dichotomy for all the instruction it can offer. Doing so requires a deeper understanding of the complex history of the charity-philanthropy divide.

An appreciation of this history can be instructive for two reasons.

First, the divide between charity and philanthropy is almost always promoted from the latter’s perspective, with philanthropy peering down at charity from the heights of its own self-regard. The view from the other direction—the corrective that charity offers philanthropy—is less often considered. Yet at precisely the moment that modern philanthropy first invoked the inadequacies of charity to define its own prerogatives, defenders of charity were developing a powerful counter-critique of their own, highlighting charity’s mission by calling out the dangers and conceits of philanthropy.

American Catholics served as the leading charity apologists, tapping into deep reserves of theological justification for works of corporeal mercy. They indicted philanthropy for its relentless secularism and for its inability to address the spiritual needs of its beneficiaries; for its coldness and condescension; for its reluctance to engage in a direct, loving, and immediate way with those in need; and for its affinities to and reliance on concentrated wealth. Philanthropy, they insisted, sought to save mankind but had little love for man as he was. As one Catholic author wrote, philanthropy’s attempts to eliminate poverty often began with an effort to banish actual poor men and women from one’s own estate. The attack still stings.

Beyond illuminating the gap between the two, a historical appreciation of the charity-philanthropy dichotomy can also map out paths that have bridged the divide.


At the turn of the last century, a corps of pioneering philanthropists acknowledged the rebuke represented by charity, while some of the age’s most devout defenders of charity recognized the legitimacy of philanthropy’s critique.

None denied the tensions between charity and philanthropy, but each sought to cultivate them, to turn the two moral imperatives into productive if wary partners. It’s a partnership we would do well to revitalize today.

Take, for example, the leaders of the Charity Organization movement, which emerged in the United States in the final decades of the 19th century.

The movement dedicated itself to eradicating the scourge of "indiscriminate charity," which it assumed perpetuated pauperism, and supplied many of the theories of giving that informed early philanthropists. The Charity Organization movement harbored a pronounced repressive strain, and its early efforts emphasized weeding out undeserving applicants for relief and the exposure of charitable frauds.

But the suspicion of traditional almsgiving had a more progressive bent and ultimately led to support for broader societal and environmental reforms that addressed the causes of poverty—to the work of "scientific philanthropy."

At the same time, the leaders of the movement insisted that their aim was to rehabilitate true charity, to rescue the charitable relationship from the indignities of anonymous, urban life.

They championed the use of "friendly visitors" who would call upon the poor in their homes and, besides performing a thorough investigation of what they found there, would also develop a close, personal bond with their charges. These visitors would provide an essential counterweight to the professional and bureaucratic callousness that could afflict the movement.

There were strong paradoxes and tensions between these positions, which the most perceptive leaders of the charity organization movement appreciated. But they also recognized the value of seeing both charity’s limitations (and thus the need for philanthropy) and charity’s promise.

In the words of the movement’s first historian, they understood that "the end and aim of all charity is no charity; in another [sense], the end and aim of all charity is more charity."

A corps of early-20th-century Catholic charity reformers came to a similar conclusion. They insisted that Catholics must not sheathe charity’s critical power and must continue to call out the dangers of a reliance on secular philanthropy.

But they also pushed their co-religionists to expand Catholic charity’s individualistic orientation to address broader societal conditions and to endorse reforms like unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and regulations against child labor. And they acknowledged that an embrace of the providential nature of poverty, which allowed for the blessings of charity, could support lazy thinking and mask unworthy reactionary tendencies.

These days, if the terrain between charity and philanthropy seems undercultivated, it is in part because in so many intellectual provinces, philanthropy can claim to be the only legitimate paradigm with which to engage voluntary giving.

Philanthropy’s status and supreme confidence have been bolstered by a faith in market-based approaches to social ills, by the spread of an entrepreneurial ethos that fuels big, ambitious schemes of social uplift, and by the concentration of wealth that has provided many men and women with resources to make good on those ambitions.

The drive to eradicate poverty is ascendant; the less glamorous commitment to relieving its symptoms enfeebled, as the low levels of philanthropy channeled to direct social services attests.

But there are some stirrings of a reassertion of an oppositional ethic of charity. This is a good thing for all those who care about the nonprofit sector. For philanthropy is more secure when supported by charity’s correctives, just as charity is stronger when braced by philanthropy’s critiques.

There are, for instance, the recent pronouncements of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis that call upon charity to confront the excesses of the bureaucratic state or of the "deified market."

The Great Recession has sparked an increased commitment among some donors to address the immediate needs of the poor within their own "estates."

And an ethic of charity has provided an alternative framework for those seeking to check the advance of "strategic philanthropy," one that counsels a measure of humility and calls for more openness to the perspective of grantees and less assuredness of foundation infallibility.

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the possibility of bridging the domains of charity and philanthropy than the career path of Patty Stonesifer.


In April 2013, Ms. Stonesifer took on the position of CEO of Martha’s Table, a food pantry and family-services nonprofit in Washington. What made the move noteworthy was that Ms. Stonesifer had previously served as chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest philanthropy in the world.

"Having Stonesifer come run a small local charity," quipped The Washington Post, "is like General Electric business titan Jack Welch showing up to manage the corner appliance store."

But as Ms. Stonesifer explained her reasons for seeking the job, the transition came to seem less a rupture and more a return to roots. Growing up in Indianapolis in a large Catholic family, she imbibed a strong commitment to charitable work from her parents.

Ms. Stonesifer, meanwhile, had grown to know of Martha’s Table’s works from her time at the Gates foundation’s D.C. office, from which she could watch its vans give out hot food to homeless people who congregated in a nearby city park. Those scenes stirred memories of her youthful social service and nourished the conviction that she belonged, as she declared to an interviewer, on "the front lines."

That decision could be interpreted as a subtle slap at the pretensions of philanthropy. Her declaration that she felt the need to move "beyond white papers and PowerPoint presentations and get my boots dirty" conjures up the sterile isolation of foundation boardrooms.

The publicity surrounding her hiring at Martha’s Table at times seemed to reaffirm the strict charity-philanthropy polarity, with the coverage picking up hints of the traditional Catholic charity apologetic.

"Instead of continuing to do what I call the ‘benevolent bureaucrat’ role, where I could be at a foundation giving funds or running a large institution with lots of front-line leaders as part of the team," she told The Chronicle of Philanthropy, "I wanted to come close to the heart of the problem."

One could detect in the remark the insinuation that philanthropy had installed itself at the more comfortable, and less vital, margins.

But it would be a mistake to regard Ms. Stonesifer’s story entirely in those terms. She was not disowning her work at the Gates foundation or her commitment to philanthropy, even as she recognized the way in which charity offered certain challenges to both.


When an interviewer asked her what she had learned from Bill Gates, she quickly responded that he had taught her to "think big." And it was a lesson she would take with her to Martha’s Table.

"So here, instead of simply figuring out how to move from providing 60,000 meals a month to 66,000, I want to think about how to end child hunger in D.C."

If charity had posed a corrective to philanthropy, here was philanthropy answering back with one of its own: Don’t think small.

In other words, the path Ms. Stonesifer has taken testifies to a truth also borne out by the early history of modern American philanthropy: that it is possible to seek more charity and the end of charity with equal vigor; that the imperatives of charity and philanthropy can both guide a single institution; that there is ample space for each in the human heart.

Benjamin Soskis is a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University and a historian of American philanthropy. This article is adapted from a monograph that will be published by the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and discussed in a live and online event in November.