History of Philanthropy

Philanthropic evaluation is essentially a historical enterprise: to understand the impact of a particular program or grant requires an analysis of change over time. It is striking, however, how infrequently historical scholarship has directly engaged questions of philanthropic impact. Our understanding of notable philanthropic initiatives hasn’t fully benefited from the sense of multicausal complexity, deep context, and contingency that rigorous historical inquiry conveys.

In 2013, the charity evaluator Givewell addressed that gap in scholarship by commissioning robust case studies of philanthropic initiatives. Subsequently, a spin-off called the Open Philanthropy Project took on the project. These case studies gauge the evidence base for claims of philanthropic impact, rooting the analysis within a rich historical context.

Now, under the direction of senior research associate Benjamin Soskis, and with the financial support of Open Philanthropy, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy continues that work, developing a deeper base of historical case studies and literature reviews of significant philanthropic initiatives. The case studies will be written by Soskis and a team of outside scholars and consultants with subject-area expertise.

These case studies will help the field develop a more nuanced understanding of philanthropic impact that appreciates the complexities of social change and the limits of what we can say definitively about causal agency. They will help inform the philanthropic sector as a whole and will be of particular interest to the subfields in which they are grounded.