March 17, 2005
by Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy
Organized American philanthropy has long been devoted to a variety of ends, including direct alleviation of suffering, promoting social change, advancing social justice, developing and sustaining civic life, and correcting social ills through research into their "root causes" and efforts to counter them with public policy. Although they commonly appeal to serving "the public (or common) good" or promoting "the general welfare," foundations often differ widely on the meaning of their ideals and how best to promote them.
Despite a general historic shift in institutional giving from more specific goals (e.g., ending yellow fever) to broader social goals (e.g., "creating civic society"), the social goods that are being served have become less clear. Some critics, observing the host of agents that claim to be devoted to the same or similar ends, wonder whether philanthropy still has a unique role to play in our polity. Others, more skeptical, wonder whether the so-called "public" good that is allegedly aimed at is anything more than private good writ large. Still others, increasingly cognizant of the wide gap between the public’s perception of philanthropy – i.e., philanthropy as charity – and philanthropy’s own self-understanding, wonder whether there is any room left in philanthropy for charity.
What are the goals of philanthropy as practiced today? How are they related to the goals of governmental programs and public policy, or to the activities of voluntary associations, including religious institutions? What is the relation between philanthropy and charity? Above all, what should today’s philanthropy aim to do?
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