What my book really says –

Paul Vallely


Modern social media is a double-edged sword. It alerts us quickly to the presence of something new. But its very speed also creates a tendency towards knee-jerk responses rooted in our preconceptions and prejudices. Often it cuts out the need to actually consider the evidence.  So it was with some concern that I heard that social media responses to my new book Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg had been the subject of unhappy comment among some philanthropists and philanthropy advisers after Twitter comments provoked by an extract from my book in The Guardian. 

Book extracts, too, can be double-edged. They draw a new work to the attention of a large number of people. But they are extracts, and not a précis. The Guardian selected around a quarter of one chapter from among twenty chapters in the book. They chose the parts which they thought would interest their readers from Chapter 16 which is headed: Is Philanthropy Bad for Democracy? It’s worth noting the question mark at the end of that title. Many of those who have criticised the extract sloppily supposed that this was an assertion rather than a question. They also rather naively assumed that the extract was representative of the whole book. This was rather like reading the extract in the Jewish Chronicle and concluding that the whole book was about Jewish philanthropy, or the extracts in The Tablet, Church Times or the Quaker magazine The Friend, and concluding that the book is overwhelmingly religious.

The book, which is the product of six-years’ work, is far more than any of that. It seeks to celebrate the successes of philanthropy and to critique its failings in the hope that better philanthropy would be the result. It began, thanks to the untrammelled generosity of a philanthropist, Sir Trevor Pears. He funded the first two years of my research after realising that there had not been a major history of English philanthropy written for more than half a century. But it soon became apparent that a new book could not confine itself to England. It needed to begin with the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, who very early on each developed distinctive approaches to philanthropy – which have continued as threads throughout the way that philanthropy has developed over the past two millennia. And it needed to take on board that philanthropy today – particularly in its huge blossoming over the past two decades – is now essentially a global phenomenon which cross-fertilises internationally.

The intellectual framework for the modern history of English philanthropy was conceptualized in 1905 by the Unitarian socialist Benjamin Kirkman Gray. It was then adopted by the authors of the subsequent major works on English philanthropy W. K. Jordan (1959) and David Owen (1964).  Both men, and many more recent writers on the subject who have followed in their footsteps, unquestioningly accepted Kirkman Gray’s notion that the first 1,000 years of Christian charity had been haphazard, ineffective and focused primarily on saving the soul of the donor – and that it was only after the Reformation that Protestant charity had made philanthropy more rational and systematic. My book shows this is entirely wrong.

Mainstream historians like Eamon Duffy have written authoritatively to overturn the previous orthodoxy that Catholicism was moribund and unpopular among ordinary people in England before the Reformation. Specialists on late medieval and early modern charity, including Natalie Zemon Davies, Brian Tierney and Brian Pullan have shown that it was economic forces, following the Black Death, not religious ones, which brought about key changes in the attitude of the rich towards the poor. But, for reasons my book lays bare, this new consensus among mainstream historians has never found its way into histories of philanthropy. Yet something vital was lost from philanthropy at that point in history.

What the book concludes is that modern philanthrocapitalism – and Peter Singer’s philosophy of Effective Altruism in which it is rooted – is the inheritor of that sixteenth-century deficiency. Indeed, it has exacerbated it. This became clear to me after conversations with Cheryl Chapman of City Philanthropy, the philosopher and priest Giles Fraser, and Archbishop Rowan Williams. They all deepened my doubts about what Chapman had called a “philanthropy by numbers”, which she insisted “doesn’t add up” – but which increasingly dominates modern philanthropic thinking. That created a determination in me to seek out a philanthropy which is less impoverished and reductive – and, instead, returns to a healthier and more holistic vision of philanthropy as a reciprocal relationship between donor, recipient and wider society.

The Greeks, and more especially the Romans, saw philanthropy primarily as a device to strengthen social relationships. Aristotle said its main purpose was to improve the moral character of the giver. But mainstream Greco-Roman philanthropy was in practice more venal; it was about improving the status of the giver, courting popular approval and consolidating political power. It was essentially a top-down process. The Jewish vision was altogether more religious. God had a special love for the poor and therefore all believers ought to imitate that generosity. Giver and receiver were bound together with God and the entire community in a mutual relationship.

For its first thousand years philanthropy was dominated more by the Jewish than the Greek vision. It contained an element of social justice. The rich had the obligation to assist the poor materially. But the poor had a duty to pray for the rich. It was much more of a two-way – or even three-way – process. Then came the Black Death. The demography and economy of Europe shifted – ushering in the decline of feudalism, the growth of trade and towns, the rise of the merchant class, the monetization of the economy and the first stirrings of capitalism. Philanthropy changed too. A tide of vagrant beggars swept the continent, provoking the rich to develop a much more hostile attitude to the poor. A new idea arose that the poor were in some way to blame for their own poverty.

It was a notion which was to shape philanthropy for the next six centuries – through the Elizabethan Poor Laws and Victorian charitable moralising, through the innate superiority of Andrew Carnegie, to surface in the top-down approach of some philanthropists today.  But the alternative tradition has persisted too, weaving in and out of the history of philanthropy. Growing out of the Hebrew sense of community, it passes through medieval Christian charity, and resurfaces in Enlightenment altruism with agitator philanthropists like the penal reformer John Howard, and the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. It is there in the five-per-cent philanthropy of Octavia Hill, and in the new Lanark factories of Robert Owen who put into practice Rousseau’s teachings on nature and nurture with the conviction that if you created the right environment those who lived and worked in it would become good, rational and decent individuals. It is there in the Quaker capitalism of George Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree who changed their business methods to fit their philanthropy (where many philanthrocapitalists today do the opposite).  And it survives among those modern philanthropists who eschew top-down methods and instead seek to develop a model of mutual respect and partnership between giver and recipient.

Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg charts all this. On route it considers philanthropy and religion, philanthropy and the state, and philanthropy and the private sector. It celebrates the staggering successes of philanthrocapitalism and critiques its serious shortcomings. It explores the globalisation of philanthropy typified by the work of Bill Gates, whose giving has saved the lives of millions, and yet who has made some mistakes along the way. The book looks at those philanthropists, like Gates, who have learned from their mistakes and those who have not.

It examines the phenomenon of celebrity philanthropists – from Audrey Hepburn to Angelina Jolie, Bob Geldof to Bono, who stand as modern figures in the tradition of the activist philanthropy of Howard and Wilberforce. Interestingly the first man to be called a philanthropist in English was not someone who gave away large sums of money but was the prison reformer John Howard who instead dedicated his whole life to improving the world’s prisons and tackling infectious diseases – one of which killed him.

The concluding chapters look at the relationship between philanthropy and politics, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Chapter 16 considers the relationship between philanthropy and democracy. On the one hand it illustrates the democratic deficits of philanthropy, looking at issues of accountability, power, taxation and asks whether – despite the extensive system of checks and balances built into the regulation and administration of charities – present systems of tax relief on giving require reform.  But that chapter also looks at the way that philanthropy can strengthen democracy by helping empower civil society organisations which mediate between the individual and the state and market. Many of today’s Big Givers follow Andrew Carnegie’s philosophy of “philanthropists know best” but others, by contrast, are aware of their responsibility for and accountability to civil society. It was Carnegie, incidentally, who set the template for the shift of 20th century philanthropy away from the relief of poverty and towards activities like the sponsorship of the arts and elite educational institutions.

Each chapter of the book is followed by an interview with a contemporary philanthropist or thinker. They include Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks; Jonathan Ruffer; Naser Haghamed of the world’s biggest Muslim charity, Islamic Relief; John Studzinski, Archbishop Rowan Williams; Lord David Sainsbury; Sir Bob Geldof; Sir Trevor Pears; Rajiv Shah president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Ian Linden, formerly of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation; Sir Richard Branson; Chris Oecshli of the now spent-out Atlantic Philanthropies; Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government; Patrick Gaspard, president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations;  Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, chair of the Wellcome Foundation; and Sir Lenny Henry and Kevin Cahill of Comic Relief.

Together with the main text, the interviews each explore a contemporary dimension of the historical story. They examine philanthropic choice, motivation and accountability. They cover the relationships between philanthropy and art, business and the state. They contrast the advantages of “Giving while Living” against the strengths and weaknesses of philanthropic foundations. They scrutinize various philosophies of giving. They look at those philanthropists who support climate change activists – but also those who fund climate change-denying lobbyists and think-tanks. They consider the relationship of philanthropy to political power, the place of philanthropy in the global economy and the democratisation of philanthropy through crowdfunding and other new avenues.

Towards the end, the book examines the philosophy of Effective Altruism – of which so many modern philanthrocapitalists are enthusiasts. It lays out the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach. Then it sets out how philanthropy can recover its lost soul by combining the strengths of the Greek and Jewish traditions, of the head and the heart, of the strategic and the reciprocal. And it gives practical examples of how the best philanthropy is doing this – by injecting into command-and-control philanthropy the vital qualities of compassion, empathy and humility. At the end of the book an Epilogue on Philanthropy after the Pandemic sets out two visions for the future. One shows how philanthropy may merely acquiesce in the reinforcing of the structures of inequality in today’s society. The other suggests how philanthropy can help make the post-pandemic world a better place.

Given the breadth and ambition of this canvas you can, perhaps, now see why it is enormously frustrating to have this book associated with perpetuating unhelpful generalisations, encouraging cynicism and making it harder to keep good causes afloat. This is especially so when it is critiqued by people who have only read a small part of it – and who, despite that, proceed to point out all the things which are allegedly missing even though they are actually covered in this 750-page book in considerable depth.

Those who have actually read the book offer rather a different verdict. David Callahan, editor of the Inside Philanthropy website, has written: “Deeply researched and wonderfully written, this book is much more than a sweeping, erudite history. It is a fascinating exploration of why people give – and a powerful call for philanthropy to do a better job of melding empathy with effectiveness.”

Rob Reich, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, calls the book “a magisterial treatment of the history of Western philanthropy”. He adds: “Paul Vallely has produced the best single volume on the ideas that have shaped philanthropy, the institutional arrangements that have structured it, and the outsized personalities that have marked it. Vallely’s book immerses you in the history of philanthropy with an eye toward informing you about its present-day practices, potential, and problems. Stuffed with astonishing stories and illuminating interviews, this book will be a lasting resource for scholars, philanthropic and NGO leaders, and individual donors.”

And one of the most eminent political philosophers of our day, John Gray, calls the book: “The definitive book on philanthropy – its history, contradictions and future… a deep and probing study of a highly complex practice that is an increasingly powerful force in our world”.

You may, of course, disagree. But I would hope that you would do so on the basis of what the book says – rather than what others tell you it says.

Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury at £30


Read Dr. Beth Breeze’s response here

Read our co-founder, Cath Dovey’s response here