Why political science should study organized philanthropy

Theda Skocpol

Perhaps because philanthropic gifts do not seem to be the central stuff of politics and public policy, most political scientists – until recently – have left this domain to sociologists, anthropologists and students of non-profits based in centres focused on studying philanthropy. Our discipline’s reticence about philanthropy is especially ironic in the US since subsidized philanthropy is literally at the heart of American public policy.

Years ago, Jack Walker and Jeffery Berry, among others, signalled the importance of US foundation patronage to the explosive growth of public-interest advocacy groups and social movements in post-1950s America.

However, in this early work, wealthy patrons and foundations were treated mainly as ‘black box’ sources of funding to replace the reliance of early US voluntary associations on dues collected from millions of ordinary members. In political science at least, not much attention was given to the philanthropists, their aims, modes of organization, and policy impact.

Never have so many individuals publicly and privately pledged to donate so much money to public causes – and never have they had as much organizational capacity for doing so.

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