A conversation with philanthropy historian and journalist Benjamin Soskis (Part 1 of 2)

Feb 14, 2020

The Urban Institute researcher speaks with Michael E. Hartmann about how he came to study the history of philanthropy and the origins of the HistPhil website he co-edits.

Benjamin Soskis is a research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., and a co-editor of HistPhil, a website devoted to the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. His work explores the many ways in which the study of the history of philanthropy can benefit the current and future practice of philanthropy.

Before joining the Urban Institute, Soskis was a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He has been an adjunct professor at The George Washington University and the University of California’s Washington Center. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University.

Soskis’ doctoral dissertation formed the basis of a 2014 paper he prepared for the Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., “Both More and No More: The Historical Split between Charity and Philanthropy,” which he presented and discussed at this event.

He is a co-author, with John Stauffer, of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On; co-author, with Stanley N. Katz, of the Hewlett Foundation’s Looking Back at 50 Years of U.S. Philanthropy; and author of “A History of Associational Life and the Nonprofit Sector in the United States,” in the third edition of The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, forthcoming later this year.

Soskis is a frequent contributor to The Chronicle of Philanthropy and his writing has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Boston Review, The Guardian, The New Republic, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and The Washington Post.

Like the pleasantly welcoming Soskis himself, his active Twitter account is both informative in substance and insightful in character.

Below is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that he was kind enough to have with me in late January. The second part—in which he talks about what the study of history brings to the practice of grantmaking, the challenges and opportunities currently facing those conservatives and progressives critiquing giving, and the difference between charity and philanthropy—is here.


Hartmann: Where is home for you?

Soskis: I’m from Lower Merion, right outside of Philadelphia, which a lot of people know as Kobe Bryant’s home. I grew up there. My parents are still there.

I’m a big Philadelphia sports fan. Between philanthropy and Philadelphia sports, you’ve just filled up about 80% of my brain—and what the kids are having for dinner, that’s about 95%.

Hartmann: But it’s in that order?

Soskis: Well, it depends. It depends on what’s happening with the sports world.

Hartmann: So how’d you end up here?

Soskis: I can give you a little bit of an intellectual history of how I got here. I think it fits into some of the themes we’re talking about, in terms of who writes and who thinks about philanthropy, and the extent to which it becomes a kind of central category of scholarship.

It was a lot of happenstance. I went to Yale University as an undergraduate and was a history major. I actually really wanted to study Irish history. I was obsessed with Ireland. I’m not Irish myself, but I loved Irish culture, loved Irish music, and I thought Irish history was what I’d basically devote my career to.

Yale’s Irish historian was on sabbatical my freshman year, so I took an American history course and fell in love with it. I still had this fascination with Ireland, but when it came time to write my senior essay, I had read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and was really interested in Douglass. I went to study with David Brion Davis, who was Yale’s pre-eminent scholar of slavery and anti-slavery.

He was about to retire and he said, Oh, it’d be great to take you on. I have this pot of money that I have to spend and there’s one thing about Douglass that I think no one’s ever studied. I’m wondering if you’d be interested: it’s the years he spent in Ireland after he wrote his Narrative. I heard the kind of angelic choir and I was like, Wow, someone’s looking after me. So I took that on as my project. I got to go to Ireland.

My senior essay ended up being on how Douglass’ experience in England, Scotland, and Ireland after he wrote his Narrative shaped his identity and amplified internal tensions within the abolitionist community. I tried to show how what is celebrated as a heroic story had all sorts of complications and dark patches in it if you look deeper. That’s what I got really interested in—complicating traditional narratives surrounding American reform.

Then, I started looking to journalism. I did some freelancing work in New York and then worked for The New Republic for a couple years in D.C., but I realized that I wanted to go back to grad school. I thought I’d study abolition and take on this same theme, that the abolition movement had all these tensions and there were different factions and it was not a kind of heroic, uncomplicated story, but had a kind of darker narrative to it.

I went to go study at Columbia with Eric Foner, who is a leading historian of the Civil War era. During one of my first years, I attended a talk by a terrific historian in the University of California system, who I think was a former Ford Foundation program officer, named Alice O’Connor. I didn’t know much about philanthropy, but there was a footnote in her paper that referenced a congressional investigation of philanthropy.

I remember this moment because I remember thinking to myself, why would Congress ever investigate philanthropy? Isn’t philanthropy an unambiguous good? It hit me that that this was another version of this same theme that I was interested in, this idea that benevolent traditions that we celebrate in America have a dark side, too.

My focus shifted away from the Civil War and reconstruction to the critique of charity and philanthropy in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. That was my dissertation. I was trying to understand both the critique, and the rationales and justifications for philanthropy I saw operating in tandem.

Hartmann: Do you remember the name of the paper with the footnote?

Soskis: I don’t remember the name of the paper. Alice O’Connor was the author. She’s written a lot of terrific papers on congressional investigations. She wrote a series of articles on the congressional investigation of philanthropy in the ’50s and ’60s, and this must have been about the earlier precedents.

What’s crazy to me now is that I devoted my next 15 years to thinking about the critique as an American tradition, but there was a moment when that surprised me, and I think it still surprises lots of people that America has the tradition of celebrating giving and also being suspicious of giving.

Hartmann: The pot of money that allowed you to go to Ireland was philanthropically derived?

Soskis: It must have been. It’s interesting. I’m sure I’ve been the beneficiary of all sorts of philanthropy and I didn’t know that. The story is about the study of philanthropy and it’s also been funded by philanthropy.

Continuing education, and HistPhil

Hartmann: How and when did you get to D.C.?

Soskis: My wife and I moved to D.C. because she had a clerkship for Ruth Bader Ginsburg for one year. We moved to Capitol Hill and ended up staying. I realized at that point that if I was sticking around in  D.C., there’s a good chance I wasn’t going to be an historian at a college or university. It just was too hard.

D.C. seemed like a great place to use scholarship to write about contemporary issues. The only problem was I didn’t know anything about contemporary issues. I knew a lot about the 19th Century and the early 20th Century, but this is where names that you’ll certainly be familiar with come in.

It was a great place to learn, so I started to read everything I could read about contemporary philanthropy. I started doing some research for Alan Abramson at George Mason and the Council on Foundations, but I also attended almost every single event at [Giving Review co-editor] Bill Schambra’s old Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute. That was really one of the key points of my education. I just sort of soaked it all in, and I really feel the lack of it now pretty keenly.

I basically began to write with an historical lens on contemporary philanthropy. I just got lucky, because the moment in which I was ready to do that was just after the big Buffett gift to the Gates Foundation and when people were kind of taking a step back and saying we need to start thinking more critically about what’s going on here. Unlike now, there really wasn’t a lot of scholarly writing on it.

This will lead into HistPhil. I didn’t really have a huge scholarly community. I was kind of unmoored from Columbia. My main point of contact was Stanley Katz, who’s my mentor and was on my dissertation committee. He’s a professor at Princeton. We would sort of talk about issues and things we had read. I began to feel really pretty profoundly this lack of community. There were no journals. If you went to the big conferences that were sponsored by historical associations or by ARNOVA, the big research association for the nonprofit sector, you felt like an unloved stepchild if you were really engaged in historical research.

I also kept on noticing different people doing stuff that I was interested in. My sense is they didn’t know each other, they didn’t know what else was going on. There was this community that had not coalesced and cohered yet because there really wasn’t any central institution that served as a collecting body.

So together, Stan and I and one of his former students, Maribel Morey, basically created an online version of that community. This was in 2015. We basically just started reaching out to folks who we knew were interested in this.

It was very important to us that it involved both practitioners and scholars, because one thing that became really clear was that the pendulum seemed to be swinging back from the quantitative focus that had dominated this effort for a long time. There was a real hunger for qualitative, humanistic engagement with philanthropy, but there wasn’t a central place to attract that kind of work. We wanted to basically be a place for that kind of thinking.

We’ve been editing it for the last couple of years. It’s a pretty niche audience, but it’s a community of people who really care. And it’s really a community. That’s something I care a lot about. The people who read HistPhil think of themselves as involved in a kind of  shared enterprise. We span ideologies and professional orientations, but are really, really interested in history and humanism as it pertains to philanthropy—and note not just philanthropy, but civil society more generally.

Hartmann: What’s the ratio of academics to practitioners?

Soskis: It’s really more academic in terms of the writing. We found that if you ask most practitioners, they don’t have writing budgeted into their time. So if you ask a program officer who might be a terrific writer to write a piece, they’ll often say, I would love to, but maybe on the weekend or something. For an academic, that’s part of what they consider their job. Plus, a lot of what we do is pegged to books or articles that come out. It’s just an easy way to move the conversation.

Hartmann: It is ideologically ecumenical, but it reflects the sector, right—which to a conservative, might look more liberal or progressive?

Soskis: It probably reflects our own thinking. Stan and Maribel and I are all progressives, of different shadings. But I can say for myself that from the start, I’ve tried to bring in conservative voices. Not a small part of this is due to Bill [Schambra], because I just respected his opinion so much and thought it was so useful.

It’s also because there is this really interesting convergence. If you read HistPhil, you’ll read the standard progressive critiques of conservative philanthropy. That is a big part of the historiography and the scholarship. But one thing you also notice is the two poles meeting in some of the critiques. I have just been really interested in that.

There’s probably a smaller body of conservatives now who represent that voice, maybe with Bill in the lead, but in terms of a space for people who are willing to think critically about philanthropy, I consider the conservative critique about bureaucracy and technocracy and the importance of local versus national to be fundamental to some of the conversations we’re having.

These days, there’s all sorts of other venues for conservatives to write in, like your own. There was no Philanthropy Daily when we were starting. It would be a shame if different writers kind of just retreat to their corners and don’t feel comfortable having a space where their views are introduced to people who may not be normally in their readership.

I don’t think any of us, the editors, would be embarrassed about our progressive principles, but having a space where people can figure out what the some of the common dynamics are is important. That’s, again, what the Bradley Center seemed to do really well. I don’t know what space is out there that does  that these days.

Hartmann: Who financially supports HistPhil?

Soskis: This is a constant challenge for me. The other two editors are scholars at academic institutions, so HistPhil is part of their professional responsibility. For me, I need to basically fund my work. Everything I do has to be funded. The Hewlett Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation are funding HistPhil and some of my other work.

It’s a really interesting question. I’ve talked to lots of people in the field about this. There is a range of views about the legitimacy of writing critically about philanthropy while taking the money, and I respect them all. [Inside Philanthropy’s] David Callahan, for instance, doesn’t take any money and very feels very strongly about that. The Chronicle of Philanthropy just started accepting foundation grants. I couldn’t do what I’m doing without it.

Hartmann: It’s an existential question.

Soskis: It’s really kind of practical question at this point. If I had an academic position, it would be different, but working at a research institution like the Urban Institute and the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy inside Urban, that’s the way the funding operates. Whatever time you have has to be billed. If I’m working on HistPhil, I have to find funding for that time.

HistPhil, as you know from your own work, it’s a labor of love, but it’s definitely still labor. It takes a lot of work. For every article you see, there’s many, many that kind of whither on the vine or people don’t or can’t get around to them. A lot of what I do is bug people. A lot of bugging people.


The conversation continues in Part 2 of 2 here.