3 min read

So much philanthropic giving is concerned with identifying and tackling “root causes.” And yet, few people know the history of this effort—or its resounding failure over time.

One of the great things about history is that everyone and everything has one. It’s a simple observation, but frequently overlooked. It’s tempting to think of history mainly as a something you trudge through in school, or if it appeals to you, a geeky side interest in “trivia,” which by definition does not really matter. As the comedian John Mulaney muses, why does it seem like our dads are cramming for some complicated exam on WWII that no one knows about?

But history is powerful for revealing the nature of things, and especially for revealing the nature of things that one normally takes for granted as fixed features of the universe.

If you’ve spent much time around the nonprofit sphere, it’s probably no surprise that very little time is made for the study of history—we’re all too busy careening from grant cycle to grant cycle to annual (virtual?) gala to the end-of-year mad dash towards budget goals.

But it is a shame we don’t think more about the history of nonprofits, because it’s deeply enlightening for our work today. I can’t count on my hands the number of times I’ve enduring individuals (whether nonprofit staff or donors and board members) making demands to “attack root causes, as opposed to treating symptoms,” or to “focus on outcomes, not outputs,” or to “run this nonprofit like a business”—as though these were revelatory new ideas for their cause or for nonprofits overall, the implementation of which would cause an immediate revolution in education, advocacy, or anti-poverty work.

As a matter of fact, these slogans and dictums have backstories, and many of them have been bandied about as though they were completely new for close to a century. Decades of well-funded searches for the “root causes” of lack of educational attainment (for instance) have more or less produced none of the sought-after results. And yes, this rarely bothers those religiously committed to the pseudo-profound principles of the “MBA philosophy.” But perhaps it should.

That’s why our few and happy few historians of philanthropy are so important, and Benjamin Soskis—Jeremy Beer’s guest on the latest Givers, Doers, & Thinkers—is one of the foremost. As he describes in his conversation with Beer, the word “philanthropy” itself has a fascinating history, slowly morphing from the merely etymological “love of mankind” into a concept with grand scientific purposes that was explicitly opposed to the messy, emotional, and ineffective “charity” work of others.

Soskis sheds great light on this transition, pointing us to an obscure 18th century British prison reformer, John Howard, who was the first person christened a “philanthropist” in anything like the sense that is used today. Howard worked to raise awareness of prison problems, and was described as a philanthropist more for his care and attention to the cause of reform than for his wealth or donations per se. As the concept developed and hardened it became subject to numerous critiques, some of which Beer has elsewhere detailed in colorful terms.

What happens when the inherently aristocratic elements of philanthropy bump up against not just charity but democracy itself, as it often has historically? Is there anything at the root of philanthropy that caused it to tend towards its most dangerous errors, like the eugenics movement? What sort of legal structures best resolve some of these tensions, and ensure that philanthropic dollars contribute to the public good?

We need to be having more of these conversations, and so in addition to bookmarking Philanthropy Daily I challenge readers normally stuck in the day-to-day of the nonprofit sector to check out more of Soskis’ work, and particularly to keep tabs on the wonderful scholarship he helps promulgate through the HistPhil site.

With a bit of historical knowledge, we can finally start to produce outcomes that tackle the root causes of bad philanthropic ideas.


This was the final episode of Season One of Givers, Doers, & Thinkers. If you need to catch up on any episodes, you can find them all here or wherever you stream podcasts. And feel free to be in touch with GDT's producer, Katie Janus, with any questions, feedback, or suggestions!


1 thought on “The root causes of problematic giving”

  1. Paul Brest says:

    I couldn’t agree more. When I teach nonprofit and philanthropic strategy, I ask students what’s the “root cause” of malaria, and whether they want to wait to identify the root cause of homelessness before helping homeless people. I also suggest that the best way to deal with playground injuries is (literally) a Band Aid solution. It’s what works and not root causes that matter.

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