Philanthropy in Democratic Societies – Rob Reich, Lucy Bernholz and Chiara Cordelli (eds)

Reviewed by Anthony Tomei

Philanthropy involves private persons using power to influence the public realm. To what extent is the exercise of this power compatible with the values of a liberal democratic state? This is the fundamental question that runs through this important and absorbing volume. The authors are an interdisciplinary group of scholars including sociologists, political scientists, historians, political philosophers and legal scholars. Their essays have a coherence that is unusual in a collection of this kind; well written and accessible, they avoid the trap of disciplinary inwardness that can make such collections indigestible to the lay reader.

The book contains ten substantial essays, arranged in three sections. The first describes how philanthropy has evolved in a modern democratic state. Philanthropy in its widest sense is as old as humanity itself, but its modern form dates back to the late 19th century, to the rise of large-scale capitalism in the USA, the accumulation of prodigious wealth and the large general-purpose foundations that resulted. The emergence of these philanthropic forms was controversial and contested, reflecting wider debates about the appropriate roles of public and private funding in society, and indeed the evolution of democracy itself. 

The second section explores some of the institutional forms in which philanthropy is embodied. These institutional forms reflect changes in the role that philanthropy plays, or is expected to play, in society. A key chapter by Aaron Horvath and Walter W Powell describes how new modes of philanthropic power associated with fortunes made in the tech and financial sectors reflect a shift from activity that is primarily supportive of the public sector to one that is primarily disruptive. A chapter by Paul Brest looks at the tension between the social and financial goals of corporate social responsibility, while Ray Madoff provides an intriguing analysis of donor-advised funds, a structure that is growing fast in the USA, although it is less common in Europe.

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