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Since the rise of professional philanthropy, major foundations and their progenitors sought to abandon old-fashioned attempts to alleviate immediate distress for a more focused scientific, expert-driven approach that would provide permanent solutions to vexing social problems. Over a century later, contempt for traditional charity – for “trivial” “small deeds” – is still conventional wisdom within the professional philanthropy industry.

For a decade or more, the Hudson Institute's William Schambra has been writing articles and giving lectures reminding his audience of an extraordinarily important point about the rise of professional philanthropy in the late 1800s/early 1900s. From the beginning, Schambra has emphasized, the major charitable foundations (Russell Sage, Rockefeller, etc.) and their progenitors consciously sought to abandon old-fashioned attempts to alleviate immediate distress for a more focused scientific, expert-driven approach that would provide permanent solutions to vexing social problems.

For donors to simply provide aid to those particular men, women, and children who needed it was no longer good enough. It was time to change the world -- just as the captains of commerce who started many of these foundations had seemingly done with their railroad, oil, and munitions industries. It was time to attack problems like poverty and disease at their roots.

The term "charity" by and by came to refer, for the most part, to small, reactive, and/or non-strategic efforts to assist the suffering. Charity was, to put it bluntly, the province of simpletons. Sophisticated entrepreneurs, professionals, and scientific experts engaged in philanthropy.

And so it has remained.

It is worth noting, therefore, that there were those who saw the peculiar dangers in this terminological and conceptual transition from the beginning. Orestes Brownson, who possessed perhaps America's most original and penetrating philosophical mind, was one. I learned this recently in reading Walter McDougall's profound Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877. Brownson (one of the few consistently honest intellectuals of his era, contends McDougall) wrote in The American Republic (1866) that Satan's "favorite guise in modern times is that of philanthropy. He is a genuine humanitarian, and aims to persuade the world that humanitarianism is Christianity and that man is God." Brownson blamed "Beecherism" -- that's Henry Ward Beecher, the  influential progressive clergyman and outrageously unfaithful husband who was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe -- for the substitution of "philanthropy for charity."

It would be fascinating to see whom among Brownson's peers made similar objections during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Closer to our own time, Brownson has an ally in the great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Consider Solzhenitsyn's short story "Ego," first published in 1994 and included in the new collection Apricot Jam (disclosure: I acted as literary agent to the Solzhenitsyn estate for this title). In the opening paragraph of this story, set during the Russian Revolution, Solzhenitsyn's narrator describes how the practical, small-scale social work of Pavel Vasilyevich Ektov, "a natural-born activist in the rural cooperative movement," was derided by the Leninists then coming to power:

[Pavel] never took up any of the grandiose, earth-shaking causes of the time. In order to keep true to his beliefs, he had to engage in some bitter debates on how best to remake the life around him and to resist the temptations and withstand the rebukes of the revolutionary democrats: devoting himself to social change by promoting only "small deeds" was trivial; he was not merely squandering his energy on useless work, he was betraying the whole of humanity for the sake of a few people around him; it was cheap philanthropy that would lead to no great end. Now, they said, we have found the path to the universal salvation of humanity; now we have the actual key to achieving the ideal of happiness for all the people. And what can your petty notions of one person helping another and the simple easing of day-to-day tribulations achieve in comparison with that?

As the story moves forward, the peasants in Pavel's Tambov Province are systematically robbed, raped, murdered, and executed en masse by the communists. Solzhenitsyn clearly wants us to consider whether there isn't a connection between the communists' view of Pavel's charity and their bloody contempt for actual, flesh-and-blood human beings.

The communists are gone, but their contempt for "trivial" "small deeds" is conventional wisdom within the professional philanthropy industry. And as Schambra and Brownson show, this assumption is inscribed in the very heart of modern philanthropy.

Should that bother us?

2 thoughts on “Philanthropy and the triviality of “small deeds””

  1. Scott Allen says:

    Excellent post Jeremy. Great reminder. As a Christian, we are not called to change the world. God does that. We are called to obey him in often small, but significant ways as a demonstration of his love, including those outlined in Matthew 25:31-46. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…”

  2. Peter Beaulieu says:

    In his Democracy in America (1835) Alexis de Tocqueville said this: “But what most astonishes me in the United States is not so much the marvelous grandeur of some undertakings as the innumerable multitude of small ones” (Vol. 2, Bk. 2, Ch. xix). In today’s political context,”thinking big” should lead us beyond debates on how to size the next Keynesian stimulus package, and toward the bigger picture of real human beings in all of our complex relations — living in the “innumerable multitude” of small stuff outside the Beltway and occasionally free of media talking heads and teleprompters.

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