‘How Great Philanthropists Failed and You Can Succeed at Protecting Your Legacy’ by Martin Morse Wooster

Reviewed by Michael Alberg-Seberich

This is the fourth edition of a book that in the past had the title The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’.

No doubt, donor intent is a crucial principle in philanthropy. At Active Philanthropy we have explored the narrow line between clear and relevant donor instructions and donors leaving absurd or over-detailed statements of intent. Martin Morse Wooster explores in detail the perceived deviations from the intentions of donors by presenting nine case studies, from Rockefeller to Packard, on how donors, in his interpretation, ‘failed’ in establishing their philanthropic legacy. These ‘failures’ are followed by five supposedly successful examples, from the JM Foundation to the Hilton Foundation. 

I found reading this book a cause of irritation. This was not because of the research presented by Wooster or the many, detailed, entertaining stories and anecdotes about entrepreneurs and donors he tells. Rather it was the insistent political undertone and the rather one-sided interpretation of success and failure in philanthropy. One example of this was the explanation of ‘social justice’ as ‘often a euphemism for government wealth redistribution’ in the case study on Carnegie. Equally grating was the criticism of climate change initiatives of foundations like Pew and Packard. In Wooster’s interpretation, these are all divergences from conservative donor intent to liberal action. Is the world really this black and white in philanthropy? It is stunning how the polarization of American society is reflected in this book.

Next Book review to read

‘Philanthropy in Practice – Pragmatism and the impact of philanthropic action’ by Ekkehard Thümler

Michael Alberg-Seberich