Philanthropy in America: A History

In This Review

Philanthropy in America: A History (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America)
by Olivier Zunz
Princeton University Press, 2011
396 pp. $29.95

Organized philanthropy was one of the most distinctive features of American life in the twentieth century yet is rarely studied as such. That is the ambitious and important task Zunz set for himself in this substantive book. Zunz is at his strongest when examining philanthropy as an instrument with which the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century reshaped the nation in an effort to provide support for the movement’s best causes (public health, mass mobilization, political reform) as well as its worst (eugenics and segregation). Zunz also shows how World War I led to national efforts to harness and rationalize the giving impulse and imbue philanthropy as a whole with a patriotic character. Philanthropy in America is particularly insightful regarding the legal basis of philanthropy, exploring how court battles and legal reforms have either encouraged or checked the growth of giving to causes for more than a hundred years. As the story approaches the present day, it becomes quite complex, and Zunz sometimes loses the thread of the narrative. Nevertheless, this is an excellent resource for those interested in philanthropy and its place in American life.