By: Matt Kelly | University Communications
A University of Virginia historian’s book helped inspire a conference and exhibit on philanthropy at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington.
“Philanthropy in America: A History,” a 2012 book written by Olivier Zunz, a Commonwealth Professor in UVA’s Corcoran Department of History, was a catalyst for the exhibit, “The Power of Giving: Philanthropy’s Impact on American Life,” which opened Dec. 1 and will be a permanent exhibit.
The program for the conference – also held Dec. 1 – included a historical overview of philanthropy, a look at current philanthropic practices and some predictions about where philanthropy is going from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Premal Shah, president of Kiva Microfunds, a crowd-sourced small-loan lender.
Curators and organizers relied heavily upon Zunz’s book in pulling together both the exhibit and the seminar, said Anna Karvellas, philanthropy initiative program manager at the museum.
“We had wanted to do this for a long time,” she said. “‘Philanthropy in America’ helped inspire the exhibit.”
Zunz’ book tells the story of giving in America from the latter part of the 19th century to modern times, examining not only the philanthropy of the wealthy, but also that of the masses, as large numbers of people give small amounts of money targeted at specific causes. He also examines the relationship between philanthropy and politics, the professionalism of fundraising and the creation of the non-profit sector.
In his book, Zunz details how philanthropy played a role in funding early examples of “big science.” Private money created universities devoted to science (as distinguished from those founded by religious institutions) and programs devoted to eradicating specific diseases, such as tuberculosis. Wealthy Americans also built scores of libraries, museums and hospitals across the country, often working with local organizations, and continued to donate to existing institutions.
Much of that private investment in public life stemmed from an expansion of wealth in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. In the two generations following the Civil War, an unprecedented number of Americans became rich. In the 1870s, the U.S. had about 100 millionaires. By 1892, the figure was 4,000 millionaires, and by 1916, more than 40,000. John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Henry Ford were billionaires. With these immense fortunes, giving moved beyond mere charity; their philanthropic power was used to shape the fortunes of mankind.
“The philanthropic projects were acts of generosity and hubris on a scale never before entertained,” Zunz wrote. “The new rich felt free to both envision and fashion the common good, and they did so.”
Zunz said he enjoyed being on the Smithsonian panel, and that he found Warren Buffet “modest” and Bill and Melinda Gates “very personable.”