Modern Generosity: The Best Books on the Charity Landscape Today

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Deep pockets have always had a hand in steering the course of American history. Industrialization brought tremendous wealth to a limited number of families during the late nineteenth century; tycoons such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Frick, Mellon, and Astor amassed incredible fortunes. While they lived in great opulence, they also donated incredible sums to support the humanities and arts. Step on the campus of nearly any notable American university or college and you’ll find a building named for Rockefeller. The Mellon family is responsible for the founding collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. These efforts shaped American culture and continue to make their impact felt today.

While we may no longer call them Robber Barons, today’s corporate leaders continue to donate money in support of their individual interests and passions. However, while the arts continue to benefit (The Whitney Museum of American Art boasts an outdoor space named after Michael Bloomberg’s grandchildren), many cast their generosity toward public policy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a pioneer among contemporary corporate foundations.

Tackling global issues as wide ranging as clean water, reproductive health, AIDS research, and climate change, the Gateses have provided a blueprint to direct positive policy change through private funding. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife aspire to leave a mark as profound as the Gates’s, promising to donate ninety-nine percent of their Facebook stock shares within their lifetime. Yet they have come under scrutiny for using a limited liability company rather than a nonprofit organization, a decision that will allow them to avoid restrictions applied to nonprofits, which prevent them from company investment or lobbying for specific legislation. Does great wealth come with great responsibility – or limited liability?

For these newcomers, they may come to see that the foundational differences that separate industry and philanthropy may complicate gift giving. David Callahan has written The Givers to explore this new landscape of aspiring philanthropists. Its publication prompts further discussion surrounding the ethics and history of corporate giving.

  • The cover of the book The Givers

    The Givers

    Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age

    Readers are familiar with philanthropy’s marquee names – Bloomberg, Gates, Koch – but writer David Callahan, co-founder of the think tank Demos and author of Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America, directs his attention to a less familiar set of donors in his latest book. As Silicon Valley witnesses the rise of thousands of new millionaires and billionaires, a new set of power players hopes to set into play a new influence on our contemporary landscape. While the current administration slashes funding to education, science, and the environment, donors hope to push their passion projects in these fields. As civil rights come under attack, these donors fund LGBT rights with the hope of encouraging a more egalitarian society. However, this is not a partisan book. Callahan’s even-handed reporting maintains the distance of a thoughtful observer, taking stock of the impact that such Givers have created in our polarized country.

  • The cover of the book The Gospel of Wealth Essays and Other Writings

    The Gospel of Wealth Essays and Other Writings

    An immigrant from Scotland, Andrew Carnegie arrived in America at age thirteen. Some fifty-two years later, he sold his company, Carnegie Steel, to JP Morgan for $480 million and then devoted the remainder of his life to writing. This collection of Carnegie’s writing includes his most celebrated essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” but it also offers a personal look at the motivation behind Carnegie’s donations to educational institutions and museums as well as the creation of more than 2500 public libraries throughout the English-speaking world. His writing demonstrates that Carnegie’s faith in and commitment to public good was something he felt was as important as his own work to promote and encourage. His musings on capitalism, wealth disparity, and charitable giving are a fascinating look into one man’s personal philosophy after a lifetime of accumulation and distribution.

  • The cover of the book The Life You Can Save

    The Life You Can Save

    How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty

    The divisive professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and author of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer has made a bold claim – the end of global poverty is a possibility within our lifetime. However, a billion people eke out an existence on what some people pay for their daily Starbucks addiction. Through ethical arguments and case studies in philanthropy, The Life You Can Save points a finger at the inadequate response to world poverty and squalor. Singer hopes to empower the public to demand more of our governments and givers, becoming part of the solution as we strive to make a better planet.

  • The cover of the book Philanthrocapitalism


    Matthew Bishop and Michael Green draw a distinction between philanthropists of the past and present. Previously, charitable giving was merely a means to distribute excess, effectively giving money away. However, this new society of billionaires have assumed a loftier outlook on their charitable work. To them, this redistribution of wealth is a business in shape as much as their money-making industries. Applying strategies successful in the workplace, they continue to expect a return on their investment. Indeed, these gifts have strings attached. Through this thoughtfully researched book, Bishop and Green consider the implications of private wealth and influence at work in social causes as global governments move further away from what they deem a welfare state. Their growing role particularly in global affairs and public health has become one of the more powerful influences for good in our modern era. But at what cost?


  • The cover of the book No Such Thing as a Free Gift

    No Such Thing as a Free Gift

    The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy

    While many champion the new wave of billionaire giving as courageous and brave, an act of extreme generosity and a demonstration of moral good, professor of sociology at the University of Essex Linsey McGoey remains skeptical. In her book No Such Thing as a Free Gift, she scrutinizes the landscape of contemporary philanthropy. Of the 85,000 private foundations in the United States, almost half were established since 2000. This influx of wealthy influence cannot possibly have an entirely ethical motivation. As governments turn away from social welfare, charitable organizations have stepped up to fill the void. McGoey considers the instability this creates and the lack of oversight of non-elected individuals who are making decisions for billions of people. She also considers the problems this dependency on private aid introduces to the global community. What happens when we crown the rich as our benevolent dictators, in complete control of defining and administering social justice?