Olivier Zunz is the Commonwealth Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the author of Philanthropy in America: A History, which was recently updated and re-released to include a new preface written by Zunz.
Recently, he answered some questions for HistPhil, a new philanthropy blog, on what philanthropy really means, what made him decide to write Philanthropy in America, and more.
One of the greatest challenges in writing an overview of the history of American philanthropy would seem to be defining the term itself. How did you think about what philanthropy means, and what you would include and exclude, in your survey? How do you think these decisions shaped your work? And how do you think they might shape the field of the history of philanthropy more generally?
OZ: I did not want to start with very strict definitions of what is philanthropy exactly because I was very aware that the word is used in many different contexts. I am a student of Tocqueville and having thought about the many different ways that he uses the word ‘equality’ and the many different ways he uses the word ‘liberty’ I felt that, very early on, what was most important for me was to capture a process of giving in American history rather than something we could clearly define as ‘philanthropy.’ I am in general agreement with the traditional distinction people have made between philanthropy and charity, with charity being more often used for various forms of almsgiving and temporary help and philanthropy more often used, at least in American history, for long-term goals, searching for root causes. This definition makes sense and to the extent that I respected one [definition], I respected that one. But I was more conscious of the magnitude of giving in the American economy and then of the need to think of philanthropy as a part of the capitalist economy, of giving as being a major component of what we call the nonprofit sector—of giving in a particular economic context. And I also wanted to think of giving as a politically involved proposition, if not explicitly at least implicitly. It was important to me to try to describe an ongoing process of giving that had political and economic consequences rather than to start with a narrow definition and say this is what we’re studying. I took the less obvious path to clarity, but eventually I thought that it would yield a greater understanding of the process.
Check out the rest of Olivier Zunz‘s interview, here.