Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3

Getting by Giving

by Eric Pfeffinger

Lawrence Friedman, a professor of history and philanthropic studies at Indiana University Bloomington, has a picture on the desk in his Ballantine Hall office: a ten-year-old boy in Little League gear, baseball bat in hand, smiling proudly.

“He just made the all-star team,” Friedman says with pride. But the boy in the picture isn’t his child. It’s Adam, a boy paired with Friedman as part of his volunteer work for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. “I take him to libraries and ball games,” he says. “I’m also doing fund raising for them and trying to get more recruits. I’m giving a lot, but I’m also getting a huge amount back.”

Lawrence Friedman, Professor of History and Philanthropic Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, and his little brother, Adam Sarnecki

It sounds as though Friedman is just another full-time professional dedicating his personal time to a worthy cause, which he is. The difference, though, is that in Friedman’s case, volunteerism isn’t just something he commits to on his own time, but something he studies professionally. Friedman is the editor of A History of American Philanthropy, a new history text funded by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.

“Broadly, it’s a replacement for a book that has long gone out of date,” Friedman says, referring to Robert Bremner’s American Philanthropy. Essentially, it hasn’t been updated since 1960 but has continued to be used in classrooms—to teachers’ increasing dissatisfaction—because another general book-length history of the subject was not available. Why hasn’t someone supplanted it with an updated account before now? The reason, Friedman says, is that it’s such a monumental task.

“I guess in the ’50s, when Bremner did it, it was conceivable for one person to cover the topic,” Friedman says. “But I realized it would be suicide for me to do it alone. One of the biggest jobs would be incorporating all the vital communities Bremner left out: minorities, immigrants, women. It needed several minds on the project.” So Friedman turned to distinguished specialists in the history of American philanthropy across the country. The resulting product will be a collection of essays on topics including the New England Puritan legacy in American philanthropy; John Marshall’s legal recognition of what have come to be called nonprofit organizations; the influence of philanthropy on women’s roles; the emergence of national nonprofit foundations in the early twentieth century; America’s post-World War II refusal to embrace a welfare state; and the various shapes of recent American volunteerism. It’s an approach that conscientiously addresses philanthropy’s connections to foreign policy, racial and other minorities, and missionary traditions.

One theme, Friedman says, involves exploring the degree to which philanthropy is a benevolent form of social control. “There’s one issue our author group is very attuned to,” he reports: “To what degree has scholarship in philanthropy in recent years been tied to a Reagan/Thatcher agenda, getting government out of public affairs? By celebrating an independent non-government sector, are you implicitly celebrating the dismantling of the New Deal? Personally, I know that’s not what I’d like to see. This book is not going to have a neo-conservative outlook.”

It is, however, going to reveal how closely philanthropic behavior is tied to contemporary assumptions and definitions. “One of the many nice things about the Center on Philanthropy is that Gene Tempel, the director, encourages us to look at philanthropy from multiple perspectives and differing points of view, and I differ with materials from the center, which firmly define philanthropy as ‘voluntary action for the public good,’” Friedman says, smiling. That’s not because he thinks the definition itself is inaccurate; rather, he thinks the term is too malleable over the centuries to be rigidly defined at all. “We’re saying, if you look at it as historians, the definition of philanthropy is a function of time and place—we don’t have ready-made universal definitions. No current definition can reflect the definitions of colonial America, or even nineteenth-century America. Philanthropy is a function of time and place.”

“At the turn of the twentieth century, for example, Carnegie and Rockefeller essentially defined it as: ‘We give, you get, you do what we say,’” Friedman explains. “And they’re entitled to be called philanthropists. But I’d argue that there frequently has been another dimension: connectedness—reciprocal relationships between donors and recipients wherein both influence the gift in question.”

That’s an outlook informed by the thinking of mid-twentieth-century developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, whom Friedman wrote about in a 1999 biography that has been selling incredibly well. “Probably the most important thing Erikson ever wrote was an essay called ‘The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight,’” Friedman says. “There have been different types of relationships between giving and receiving, and Erikson pointed out it takes two to make a relationship. You find yourself in a psychological relationship to others and you often get by giving. Where I feel uneasy is when one simply gives and the other gets. The philanthropic transaction travels in only one direction. That’s the Carnegie model, but that’s not always the most productive; to me, that’s not the most interesting example of philanthropy at work.”

Friedman’s involvement in Big Brothers provides a real-world illustration. “Our kid is gone, and now I have another kid,” he says. “I went to baseball spring training in 1958, thought about being a ballplayer—now I get to watch Adam on his all-star team.” It’s a mutual relationship. It’s what, Friedman would argue, American philanthropy can be about.