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 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.

Philanthropy has a long history of supporting college student groups and influencing worldview-shaping movements through them. This literature review surveys research on several major college student groups in modern U.S. history to provide funders with actionable insights from historical case studies. Special attention is paid to:

  • Evidence of the impact of these groups in shaping worldviews
  • The role of philanthropy in enabling impact
  • Lessons for funders interested in student movements

This review focuses on cases of direct philanthropic contributions to student groups, defined as formal and lasting organizations in which students participate significantly in decision-making roles. Each group profiled has attracted a sizeable amount of historical scholarship on philanthropic influence. This research provides actionable lessons for funders interested in fostering worldview-shaping student movements.

Lessons for philanthropic funders interested in funding college student groups

The National Student Association (NSA)

This confederation of student governments from various American college and university campuses shows how philanthropy energized and constrained student groups.

Philanthropic funding helped to advance some of the organization’s most impactful programming, but it also led to considerable dependency on time-limited and program-contingent funding, a dependency that ultimately compromised the organization’s financial stability. This overemphasis on program-related funding at the expense of overhead support remains a significant problem in the nonprofit sector today.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

This civil rights group that emerged from the sit-in movement offers three important lessons for funders.

  • It illustrates the potentially co-opting influence of philanthropy. Philanthropists approached the organization with the intention of channeling student energy into more moderate worldviews and activities. While this strategy won supporters among SNCC members, the organization ultimately drifted toward more radical strategies.
  • Under appropriate circumstances, foundations can amplify the results of their grantmaking by encouraging teamwork and checking duplicative efforts among grantees. While SNCC’s relations with other civil rights groups were often strained, the organization achieved significant impact through coalitions forged by foundations.
  • Philanthropists should take note of SNCC’s extensive off-campus activities. Campus efforts typically draw students who are already primed for movement activities and goals, and real-world engagement and struggle are often the crucible in which worldviews are tempered and reinforced.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)

This nonprofit educational organization founded in 1953 by libertarian teacher and journalist Frank Chodorov illustrates the importance of antagonism to mobilizing activists and supporters.

From its inception, ISI has defined itself largely in opposition to left-leaning, progressive viewpoints and policies that it assumes to be dominant on college and university campuses. The sense of embattlement and ostracization has enabled the organization to emphasize its negative orientation to progressivism rather than build the type of specific ideological identity that would make ISI vulnerable to political fragmentation.

Conservative students have relished their underdog status, and ISI has been able to persuade numerous supporters that they are a crucial bulwark against progressive domination on college campuses. This messaging is what persuaded “at least some businessmen, normally concerned only with quarterly statements, to take a longer view and support ISI.”

The Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC)

This network of campus-based student environmental organizations offers three lessons for funders.

  • Student movements may require more than monetary resources to promote their causes and grow their organizations. Administrative assistance (including the avoidance of extensive paperwork associated with IRS registration), donor sourcing, and fundraising may provide student movements the extra time and capacity needed to focus on planning training sessions, advocacy, and campus recruitment.
  • Grassroots student movements may channel multiple passions and priorities as students develop personally, learn about political issues, and contend for the first time with the frictions of democratic decision-making. Traditional environmentalist philanthropy has generally eschewed these types of movements, favoring the safer bet of more conventional forms of action. However, such organizations may lack the formative potential of grassroots movements.
  • Philanthropists should recognize the importance of fostering a vibrant civil society, which requires social movement organizations with active memberships and regular interaction between leadership and street-level volunteers. This form of environmentalism may be messy, and investments will not always materialize in well-run and cohesive organizations, but grassroots movements can be integral to building lasting awareness and change.

Philanthropy and US Student Movements: Four Cases

The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, commonly known as Pugwash, brought together notable scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain to discuss nuclear disarmament in an informal but serious atmosphere starting in 1957. This literature review examines philanthropy’s role in supporting the Pugwash conferences and evaluates the most significant scholarly claims of their impact.


Pugwash is a case of strong philanthropic impact via global catastrophic risk reduction. Its conferences have influenced national and international politics and contributed to international cooperation and nuclear arms control. Pugwash and its co-founder Joseph Rotblat won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to diminish the role of nuclear arms in international politics.

Historians credit the Pugwash conferences with enabling the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty and the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. The 1980s were a high point of Pugwash’s influence on Soviet policy, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev noting that Pugwash scientists were critical in shaping his views regarding nuclear weapons.


The Pugwash conferences persistently struggled to get funding. For the first conference, Pugwash’s founder sent letters to wealthy people around the world asking for financial support, but he mostly received refusals, with a smattering of small contributions.

Fortunately for the scientists, both Aristotle Onassis and Cyrus Eaton eventually made offers to fund and host a conference in 1957, though each man wanted to dictate the location. Eaton’s offer (which the scientists soon accepted) required that the meeting be held in the resort town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, where Eaton maintained a country lodge.

Eaton is described as a “wealthy industrialist” who advocated accommodation with the Soviet Union in the interest of avoiding nuclear war, a stance that would eventually bring suspicion upon the Western scientists of Pugwash. His money paid for the first conference’s travel expenses, hospitality, and housing, though the participants ran everything on their own.

Pugwash later sought to distance itself from Eaton. His friendly relations with Nikita Khrushchev led anticommunists to attack the group, and Pugwash scientists were frustrated with his interest in publicity and his desire to speak at the conferences. When Pugwash did eventually reject Eaton as a sponsor, the group struggled to find other sources of money.

Historical writing about Pugwash reveals a substantial fixation on funding among the conference’s early organizers, primarily because it was so scarce. For example, by the end of 1964, US Pugwash had only $21,000 in income and spent all but $500 of it.

The financial situation improved in 1965 and 1966, when the Ford Foundation began to supply substantial assistance, including, at one point, about $20,000 per year. Nonetheless, Pugwash seems to have been almost constantly in danger of insolvency; money for staff, office space, conferences, and travel rarely came easily.

Pugwash: Main claims of impact

Historical scholarship credits Pugwash with contributing to discussions that led to agreement on three treaties, with the strongest cases made for the Limited Test Ban and the Antiballistic Missile Treaties.

  • 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty: banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere; tests restricted to below ground, ending the threat of nuclear fallout
  • 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: pledged signatories are not to aid other nations in the pursuit of nuclear weapons; pledged signatories are to pursue nuclear disarmament
  • 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty: limits United States and Soviet Union to one antiballistic missile deployment; effectively prevents use of antiballistic missiles

Pugwash Literature Review