History for Student Practitioners

Triona Fitton, University of Kent


For a roundtable discussion at the Social History Society’s recent annual Conference in Keele, I was tasked with talking about how we teach the history of philanthropy and humanitarianism to student practitioners – where history fits in to this and why history matters.

To give you some background: I was involved in the structuring and design of the MA in Philanthropic Studies at the University of Kent, a course delivered via part-time distance learning and the first of its kind in the UK. Due to the nature of the topic, and the mode of delivery, our students were generally people already working in the sector, or aiming for a career in it. A large proportion of the cohort are choosing to study because they already have a wealth of ‘on the job’ expertise, but no concrete qualifications in the area. For example, many of the students have degrees and even Masters degrees in subjects ranging from the sciences and arts, to business and marketing.  Some have over 20 years’ experience working in the charity and philanthropy sector.

There is an enduring split in this discipline between those whom Stanley Katz describes as the ‘doers’ and the ‘thinkers’. Many people work in the charity or philanthropy sector, but do not engage with research on the topic, and vice versa. Sector-based expertise, therefore, can tend to be characterised by idiosyncrasies, particularly based around the idea that donations, volunteering and philanthropic action in general comes down to the individual, and their own choices and motivations. Robert Donmoyer has described how there is a tendency to treat the ‘atypical’ as commonplace in practice, because exceptions to the rule must still be accommodated and adapted to – this is often the case when fundraisers are trying to attract and retain donors. This leads to inconsistencies and bias in research, sweeping assumptions, and claims that the charitable action of an individual is therefore impossible to generalise.

This is where history comes in. A look back at philanthropy over time enables students who have previously laboured under the misconception of philanthropic individualism to explore trends and themes in the evolution of charitable action.

The first module the students encounter on the course is called the Fundamentals of Philanthropy, and it is precisely that. It serves as an introduction to the key issues and debates in philanthropic studies and the charity sector more broadly, and charts how what we know of as ‘charity’ has changed throughout history. Beginning with the etymology of the term, students go right back to archaic Greek mythology and its origins within the tragedy Prometheus Bound, where philanthrôpía was described as the gift of fire from the gods to humans. Students are encouraged to read Marty Sulek’s work on the classical and modern meanings of the word ‘philanthropy’.

Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center. Photograph by Will Powell (under Creative Commons)

They also study what Hugh Cunningham has referred to as the ‘layers’ of philanthropy over time. They cover poor relief in the 1500s; the birth of ‘enlightened’ philanthropy in France during the 18th Century; they look at John Howard, penal reformer and the UK’s ‘first’ philanthropist; and also at Alexis De Tocqueville’s ‘Associational Life’ in America, and how the experiences of a Frenchman travelling overseas inspired and revolutionised European democracy. The emphasis is upon context, and how history can provide a rich backdrop to the perceptions we have of contemporary civil society.

Students also look into modern trends linked to globalisation: the advent of global missionary philanthropy as the West dispersed transatlantically; the ‘golden age’ of US foundations; and mass philanthropy and the advent of fundraising events, starting with Roosevelt’s March of the Dimes and continuing up to more recent history in Elvis Presley’s 1961 Hawaiian fundraiser for the USS Arizona memorial for Pearl Harbour, and of course, Live Aid in the 1980s. This then sets the scene for studying the ‘new’ forms of philanthropy such as philanthrocapitalism and the Effective Altruism movement.

History, therefore, plays an integral role for practitioners studying philanthropy for three key reasons. Firstly, it orientates them to the setting and context they are working in now. Understanding Victorian philanthropy of the kind immortalised by George Peabody, Octavia Hill and Angela Burdett-Coutts provokes debate about the philanthropy of wealthy UK donors today. History reveals the strong influence that economic, religious and political contexts have had upon the way people engage with charity, for example, the ‘moving frontier’ of philanthropy and payment in pre-NHS British healthcare.

The importance of situating philanthropy in a context leads to my second reason: it allows student practitioners to look critically at things that previously they had been unable to, and develop an academic distance from the subject matter of their day-to-day work. Practitioners can tend to see their own practice as operating within a vacuum where philanthropic advancement is always good, without reflecting upon the potential consequences or as Michael Moody describes them, the ‘philanthropic harms’, of well-meaning charitable action. In light of the bad publicity the charity sector in the UK has received in recent years, the tendency for practitioners to defend their vocation is understandable, yet this has the potential to stymie interesting debates about morality, power and the maintenance of a status-quo that philanthropy can throw up.

Finally, looking at philanthropy as a social phenomenon that occurs and evolves over time contributes to a better understanding of society more generally. The flexible boundary between what is considered ‘public’ (the responsibility of the government) and what is ‘private’ is best illustrated through looking at what people gave their money and time to in the past. A glimpse into the history of the UK public probation service, for example, indicates how it has its roots in the actions of voluntary groups like the Church of England Temperance Society, who were tasked with caring for and providing ‘guidance’ to newly released offenders before the state took over in 1907. Institutions and services that are now seen as the responsibility of the state are viewed in a new light, which allows for contemplation of how catalytic future philanthropic action can potentially be.


About the author: Dr Triona Fitton is a lecturer at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.  She is the author of Hidden History: Philanthropy at the University of Kent (2015), a book about the history of donations to the University since its charter in 1965. She is the former Director of the MA in Philanthropic Studies in the Centre for Philanthropy at the university, and is currently part of the Student Success project, a university-wide initiative to research and tackle the attainment gap for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

3 responses to “History for Student Practitioners

  1. This is very interesting. History – provided it is critical and questioning and not simply a tale of onward progress of philanthropy – is very useful for practitioners. It reframes philanthropy and fundraising, as Triona suggests, from being seen as an individualistic, idiosyncratic type of behaviour into one that is seen as socially constructed, negotiated and changing (not just in detail but in its basic assumptions and its boundaries). So let’s have more history in philanthropy studies, encouraging practitioners and writers on the subject, to question and challenge our shared assumptions.

    1. Indeed. And the idea this won’t happen is what often makes historians nervous about history being bolted on to the teaching other subjects, especially professional training. Too often history is presented as that onward march of progress that brings us to where we are today. So this is an encouraging example of something more critical and challenging.

  2. As one of the student practioners on the MA course, it has been a fascinating and instructive experience; an opportunity to step back from day to day pressures and understand the forces that have brought us to this point. For me, an interesting observation was that philanthropy doesn’t just ‘occur and evolve over time’ rather it occurs, evolves and reoccurs. This was brought home to me recently in a presentation by the former CEO of a well known foundation discussing ‘new models of philanthropic engagement’. There was scant novelty and much of the content would have been easily recognised by any 19th century philanthropist. Little is original, just reproduced. It’s the questions we ask and the lessons we draw from that history that are key.

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