Santayana’s famous dictum, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, could have been made in direct reference to philanthropy. As Maribel Morey and Benjamin Soskis write introducing a new blog focused on the history of philanthropy, the central project of philanthropy to make the future different from the present (even when the change sought is a return to the past) means being resolutely forward-looking. As a consequence the industry in general has given its past ‘only a passing and most often disapproving look’.
That is certainly true when it comes to looking at questions of philanthropic strategy and impact measurement. But it’s impossible to assess how current donors’ efforts to measure philanthropic impact are different from those of the past without knowledge of historical practices. HistPhil, the new history of philanthropy blog notwithstanding, one of the few systematic attempts to document, understand and learn from the philanthropic past is the Rockefeller Archive Center. I had the chance to talk with Barbara Shubinski, senior historian at the centre, about how the Rockefeller Foundation has thought about and measured impact over the 100 years of its existence.
Experts in the field rather than experts in evaluation
Shubinski says the key to understanding past philanthropic practice is that ‘they always attempted to maximize their dollar. They always cared about evaluation but they had different assumptions about how to do evaluation, one of which was that you needed experts in the field’ rather than experts in evaluation.