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Stand Together Podcast: A Brief History of Good (Part I): De Toqueville in the New World

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Stand Together Podcast: A Brief History of Good (Part I): De Toqueville in the New World

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The Stand Together Podcast is a podcast for people who care about tackling the biggest challenges facing our country, exploring the origins of philanthropy, the challenges and opportunities facing community organizations, and the experiences of nonprofit leaders across the country. Click here to learn more and subscribe on your platform of choice. 

This episode and the following transcript were originally published by Stand Together Foundation.


Evan Feinberg

Hey listeners. My name is Evan Feinberg, executive director of Stand Together Foundation and one of your hosts for the Stand Together Podcast. Every time you hear my voice in the show, we’ll either be talking about the history of the social sector or paradigms that are shifting within it. 

While I’d like to fancy myself an expert on the history of philanthropy, in reality, I’m really a good student at best, one who loves to opine on how where we’ve been continues to affect where we’re going as a social sector. But fortunately, I’ll be joined by a great friend, Becky Endicott of the We Are For Good Podcast, who is something much more akin to an expert on the subject. Together, we’ll attempt to present you a 10,000-foot view of philanthropy, past and present, as we all look to a better future. This is A Brief History of Good, Part 1.

Hi Becky. Thanks so much for doing this show. Can you go ahead and introduce yourself to the audience?

Becky Endicott

Evan, I’m so glad to be here. Everybody, it’s so nice to meet you. I’m Becky Endicott. I’m one of the co-founders and I’m the chief storyteller at We Are For Good. I’m a lifelong nonprofit purist, spent 20 years in the sector fundraising, doing marketing… And now I’m with We Are For Good, and we’re working to democratize and create a kindness community that’s about upskilling the next generation of modern fundraisers and people who are wanting to do good. 

It’s just a delight to be here. And I love talking about history. So let’s do it today.

Evan Feinberg

Well, the We Are For Good podcast is one of my very favorite podcasts. I’ve been on it many times myself and I am an avid listener of the podcast. Everyone needs to check it out. But for today, you just mentioned that you are the chief storyteller for the We Are For Good podcast. Let’s start this episode as I hope we’ll start every one of these Brief History of Good episodes, by having you tell us a story, Becky.

Becky Endicott

Okay, I’m going to take you back. If everybody’s buckled up and ready to roll, we’re going back to 1794. There is a gentleman that is walking near a bridge in Plymouth, Massachusetts. His name is Captain Churchill. And as he’s sort of taking this leisurely stroll, this frantic child is running up to him and he’s telling him about this young boy who is underwater. They’re calling out for help and people are running and trying to come to his aid but it’s high tide and no one can get to him. 

And out of the blue, a man by the name of Dolphin Garler—he’s an African American man who works in a nearby store—comes flying through the beach and into the surf because he noticed these few bubbles on the water surface. He quickly dives in, and he uses what people call a “prompt and spirited action” to save this child.

He was able to get to him and return him to his mother. And the community watched all of this come down and it was such a harrowing experience. And so they kind of came together to recognize this extraordinary act of bravery and altruism. 

They were recounting this event to a statewide charity that promoted rescues from drowning. And because of this town’s lobbying, because of the advocacy, because of the passion and what they were able to see on the front lines, the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognized Garler with a $10 award. This is 1794. This is the largest gift that this organization has given this year in appreciation for his incredible service. 

And I think it’s just one of the most aspirational examples of how philanthropy and the history of philanthropy has been innate within our DNA for hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Evan Feinberg

Wow, Becky, first of all, you were an awesome storyteller. I cannot wait to do this entire podcast series with you and just hear you telling the stories of the history of philanthropy. Becky, I’ve got a story for you about early American history that I think is worth telling. It’s the story of a guy named Alexis de Tocqueville. Did you ever read him in history class?

Becky Endicott

Oh my gosh. Not only do I know him, I am a huge fan of his vision and his moxie back in the day, in the early 1800s. Keep going.

Evan Feinberg

For many years, I read Democracy in America and learned a lot from it, but I think the context in which he wrote these essays is pretty helpful. So, Tocqueville’s in France in the early 1800s. Everyone’s sort of watching from afar as this fledgling country across the ocean is beginning to gain all kinds of steam. So there’s all kinds of dynamism. They start building canals and building new products and new approaches. They had sort of the early version of the assembly line up in Massachusetts. And so everyone in Europe is like, “What is going on over there in America?” And Tocqueville wants to know what is different, unique, what’s working over across the ocean.

So Tocqueville, he then travels to America under the promise that he can tell people what’s going on. First, he says he is going to come study the American penal system, our criminal justice system. He never really had any intention. That was how he got bankrolled. So Tocqueville gets over to America with the promise of then explaining what’s going on in America that’s making it so interesting and so dynamic. 

His only framework is that it must be really well laid out plans coming from the capital of our country because that’s all he knew in Europe. So he goes to Washington, DC and finds out that it’s a swamp and that nothing’s really happening. In fact, nobody was even really there. So he’s like, “Ah, it’s not coming from Washington, DC.” And then he says, “Okay, well, I’ll go to the state capitals.” And he begins to explore whether they’ve got better leaders there. And it turns out that’s sort of very similar, part-time legislators, no one’s really doing anything there.

But then he begins to explore communities and he finds what’s so amazing about America. And it’s just ordinary people always and everywhere solving problems together. And he says, “When the Americans see a problem of any kind, they seek each other out. And when they find each other, they unite. And when they unite, they become a power that speaks, and to which one listens.”

The whole time you were telling the story of Dolphin Garler, that’s the story I was thinking about. It was in the 1790s and now we’re talking in the 1830s. Tocqueville is seeing this, he’s like, “My goodness. That’s what’s so amazing about America, is that people are seeking each other out to solve problems together.” And it’s important in his context. And I’d love to hear you unpack this a little bit, Becky, too. 

Tocqueville was seen in Europe where you had powerful aristocrats in charge, right? Lords. They were used to the feudal system. Throughout European history, they were always the powerful people that took care of other people. But in America, you didn’t have those same structures. You didn’t have some people that made all the decisions for others. And so instead, the American people were constantly coming together. He saw them as weak individuals, then coming together to be strong, and their strength was actually the strength of America. And to me, that’s the story you were telling about Dolphin Garler.

Becky Endicott

And to me it’s just the incredible uniqueness that is American philanthropy and the way that we have put this signature on the way that we show up to help humanity. I think Tocqueville was so ahead of his time in his ways that he could come in and just sit back and observe these connection points. I mean, I think about him, he used to call these associations. That’s what he observed, was these associations where people come together and they see problems and then they leverage what they have, what they know, their community, their networks, their skills. They share what works together and it helps to elevate the democracy. It helps to elevate the economy. It helps to grow and make communities more threaded together. And he thought that this was going to be the thing that absolutely was going to break, to your point, the feudal system. And we’re seeing the fall of all these aristocracies.

I think something that he said that has always just really stayed with me is, “No country in the history of the world has so creatively and effectively combined philanthropy and government service in a way that people can give freely of their own pockets.” And the government will tax us less. And just as a matter of public policy, we’re rewarded for taking a personal role in the advancement of society. 

He saw this as the way that civil societies are created. When you pull together in one direction and you share what you know, and you help your neighbor, this is how incredibly transformational democracies are born and how thriving communities are built. And I feel like we are seeing that in the modern era right now even from a digital sense.

Evan Feinberg

So Becky, I appreciate so much that you’ve already flowed through to today, but you’re now a few hundred years ahead. I want to go ahead and go back a few hundred years though, because, you mentioned the tax status of giving to nonprofits and whatnot. All that’s going to come much, much, much later, right? So I want to get at what Tocqueville was really seeing. 

Because interestingly, he starts talking about the associations that you’re describing, and he’s talking about the problems that Americans are seeking each other out to solve. And he makes a point that it’s problems of all different kinds. He calls them commercial and social. So he starts with the commercial ones. He said, they’re starting markets and they’re finding new ways to distribute goods and trade with one another. And on the social side, he said they started to build schools and churches and prisons and the equivalent of barn raising in a community to solve specific problems. And to him, these are just two different kinds of problems.

But it’s interesting, because in America we talk a lot about for-profit organizations and the mutual benefit of individuals that create goods and services that create value for others, and we celebrate business in this regard, but we often don’t talk about social problem-solving the way Tocqueville did as a form of social economy, if you will. But I find it pretty interesting that Tocqueville refers to them as two different things, but basically talks about them the same. I don’t know if that resonates with you.

Becky Endicott

I think one of the things that stays with me about de Tocqueville is that one of his grounding principles and observations was that these solutions exist and lie in the community. And so if you can empower those on the front lines through people who are creating these orphanages, or soup kitchens, or whatever we’re seeing all the way back to even the Song Dynasty, if we can empower those on the front lines and listen and have this partnership, then really our potential is limitless.

Evan Feinberg

One of my favorite authors—he passed away in 2009—his name was Dick Cornell. Dick Cornell wrote a book about the voluntary sector in America. He picks up on Tocqueville’s line of thinking here and it’s deeply influenced my own. He doesn’t call it the “social sector” the way that Tocqueville did. He calls it the “independent sector.” And he’s trying to explain, “What is this sector that we’re talking about?” 

Because it’s pretty easy to understand the government sector where people act based on the rules that are in place, right? “If I don’t pay my taxes, then the government will garnish my wages and throw me in jail, so I pay my taxes.” And on top of the government sector, there’s the business sector where people understand the incentives there pretty well. “I make goods and services. I sell those to somebody else. It benefits them. They reward me with the mutual benefit of payment and I profit and everybody’s happy.” And so you’ve got the profit motive in some way, shape, or form driving all of the voluntary exchange among individuals in the business sector.

But Cornell, drawing on Tocqueville, talks about how the social sector works. And he describes it as being driven by the service motive: that each of us wants to be the type of person that creates value for other people. And this is what Tocqueville was observing. We want to serve others. And in doing so, that makes us pursue our happiness more effectively as we serve one another. 

This explains so much of human activity. Why I’m husband to my wife, why I parent my kids, why I’m a good friend to others, why I act respectfully in personal situations. It’s because we want to be a certain type of person to others and we get value out of being that type of person. And that service is one of the top things we can do to fulfill the motivations that we have as human beings.

And see, he actually talks about the independent sector of the social sector being a social economy that leverages our desire to serve one another in ways that creates value for other people. I think that’s what Tocqueville saw. He saw Americans benefiting from coming together in common cause to solve both mutual problems and problems for others.

Becky Endicott

It goes back to the heart of the word philanthropy. I mean, it’s the love of mankind. I think each of us has had a moment in our life where philanthropy, humanity, giving, or generosity has moved us and stayed with us. I’m so glad we’re exploring the history of this, Evan, because I think so many people who work in this sector have no idea of the roots that had been laid at our feet to lead us into this day.

It goes back to exactly what de Tocqueville did observe. He talks about the only way that opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed is through this reciprocal influence that we can have on each other. And so we’re seeing this expressly played out all the time right now in the modern era, but to know that it has been grounded in our legacy for hundreds of years is just positively fascinating.

Evan Feinberg

Yeah. I love how you put that Becky. I’ll wrap us up on Tocqueville here, and we’re going to come back to him a lot, but I’ve got one last quote that I just have to read that I think is such a good Tocqueville quote. He says, “Among democratic nations, all citizens are independent and weak. They can achieve almost nothing by themselves, and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore, they sink into a state of impotence if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.”

And here’s why I love that quote. The suggestion in that quote is that we are independent and weak and that’s a good thing, right? Each of us on our own can’t really accomplish that much. And that’s a wonderful thing because it means we need each other. And if we don’t recognize our need for one another and the opportunity to serve one another, then we will continue to be weak and impotent on our own. 

Instead, this is where that quote that I shared from before comes in: “But if we seek each other out and solve problems together, if we serve one another, then we become a power that one sees from afar, a power that speaks and to which one listens.” 

That is what America was when Tocqueville came. And I believe it still is in so many ways. But now, let’s talk about the history since then and where we’ve made progress and where perhaps we’ve got opportunities to move toward that Tocquevillian vision.

So let’s talk about what happened next. After Tocqueville, we sort of get the steady march perhaps, of nationalizing community. I stole that phrase from Dick Cornell who I mentioned earlier. Dick Cornell talks about this next era in American history, in the history of philanthropy, as nationalizing community and he’s particularly pointing toward the growth of government. Talk to me about that phrase, “nationalizing community.” What do you hear when you hear that, and what do you see happening at this point?

Becky Endicott

Well, I think philanthropy’s starting to grow up a little bit. It’s starting to get a little bit more sophisticated. And so what we’re seeing right now is just this evolution into the nonprofit industry compared to what de Tocqueville would’ve described as associational life. And so you’re starting to see structures arise. You’re starting to see a kind of a top-down, a heavier, and a formalized approach to addressing systemic issues. 

And the beauty of philanthropy during this time is that, while government is leading the charge on many of those social issues, within the community there’s still holes and there’s still gaps. And the average man and woman can still rise up within their own community, within their own spheres and networks, to help fill in the gap. And that is the beauty, I think, of the democratic process.

And it also gives the average man or woman the ability to say, “Hey, I don’t think these government programs are exactly aligning with the things that I think are most important so I’m going to put my time and money over here.” And so I think this is just the beginning of where we’re starting to see philanthropy get a little more sophisticated, get a little bit more structured.

Evan Feinberg

Yeah. In my opinion, I think the industry really began to get more formalized when those top-down structures, both government and philanthropy, got involved. And there’s some really troubling things that began to occur as the actors, sort of big and powerful actors—sort of the aristocrats that Tocqueville was worried about wielding influence in Europe. And in America, that was a feature of the system, that there were no big strong 10,000-pound gorillas in the room, that it was weak people coming together to solve problems. 

But the next age of philanthropy and social sector work in America seems to be really driven by powerful actors, both government and philanthropists. So let’s actually take philanthropists first. Tell us more about what happens next. What are some of the next big trends in American philanthropy that you see?

Becky Endicott

Well, I’m thinking about the rise of the industrial capitalist who would make these really incredible fortunes, very large fortunes. You’re thinking of your Carnegies and your Rockefellers, and then they would give it away. And so people are watching the rise of this great philanthropist. And all of a sudden, the term “philanthropies” is getting a little murky because it’s not necessarily all about altruism. We’re associating philanthropy with wealth. 

That inherently is a little bit of a disconnect for me, and I think for anyone who’s a purist in that sense. But we’re seeing that the influence that these philanthropists can have, not only over these social causes but over government, over community, over business, is sort of a new phenomenon. And I would love for your thoughts on that too.

Evan Feinberg

Well, yeah. I think you’re definitely right to say it’s hard to talk about modern philanthropy without going back to this industrial capitalist age, the early 20th century in particular, but you really have to. You do have to go back to Andrew Carnegie. And I think in particular, John Rockefeller, was really driving—both then, and frankly, even still to this day—a lot of the mental models and thought leadership that underline philanthropy.

It’s not that I’m uncomfortable that individuals of wealth and means are exercising their service motive to do wonderful and great work in this world. And I think those individuals and those families and their legacies have been some of the most exciting and impressive and generous philanthropic sources in American history, and deserve a lot of credit for all the good that they’ve done. But I think it’s really hard to tell this story of modern philanthropy without thinking about their initial approach. 

First, Andrew Carnegie really saw it as sort of a sacred honor. In 1889, he published an essay on wealth and he says a philanthropist should “Consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he has called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.”

I think this is a beautiful exposition of the service motive that we talked about earlier and it’s important that those that have the philanthropic means would see this sacred honor to invest well in the community. And then I’ll add to this brief history, John Rockefeller. 

At this point, he is the richest person in the world at the turn of the 20th century. And along with his son, John Rockefeller, Jr., he was really a key and important catalyst in what we know as modern philanthropy. And so he was trying to recast charitable organizations in the image of corporate enterprise, saying, “Hey, we’re really driving progress in business and thinking more efficiently and effectively. How can we take that mindset to philanthropy?” 

The big thing about Rockefeller’s philanthropy is that his model began sort of moving us away from tackling discreet, immediate problems, and instead starting to focus on root causes as he would put it that are underlying some of the problems.

It’s a common evolution in the sector. It was away from specifically finding and solving problems, and toward trying to get at the root of the problem as well. So I think these guys are pretty important. It’s hard to study philanthropy in American history without thinking about the very first major philanthropists.

Becky Endicott

This time in history is so fascinating to me. I mean, these are men who were clearly ahead of their time just like de Tocqueville. I think about even Andrew Carnegie, who was one of these individuals that says successful businessmen know best how to use wealth to benefit society. 

To me, we’re living in a time—I keep going back to the modern day—corporate social responsibility is such a booming business right now, corporate social impact. And these giants and titans of business were the ones saying, “Hey, if you can actually tether these two together, not only is it good for business, but it’s good for the heart. It’s good for humanity as well.” 

I just think there are a lot of lessons to be learned here, and you can look at the expanse of the Carnegie and the Rockefeller dynasties and what they’ve done for philanthropy and the way that they’ve accelerated that professionalization, in that really structured way that we engage with community, it’s just really fascinating. I love this.

Evan Feinberg

All right. Well now it’s my turn though to jump forward a couple hundred years, because corporate social responsibility today is a little pet peeve of mine. That almost all corporate social responsibility right now is just public relations by another name, and companies trying to look good. 

But for Andrew Carnegie, he talked about this sort of sacred honor to figure out what creates the most value for people in the communities that we’re in. And now, you fast forward, businesses that are engaging in philanthropic work today almost always are giving to that which provides the best public relations, rather than what creates the most value for people and communities.

Becky Endicott

I love that you went here, and I am so going to go here with you as well, because I agree with you. Corporate social responsibility has been baked in to be this sort of checkbox way that we incorporate good into the way that we do business. And to me, that is one of the saddest,most false notions that we can give to our communities. Because there are organizations and corporations that bake philanthropy into their DNA—again, not just the icing on the cake, but this is a part of who they are, they’re living their values, they’re empowering employees, they’re showing up generously with their customers, not just their stakeholders, but the people who are on the front lines. 

And so I think you’re pulling up something that we’re starting to see early in the 19th century, which is this rise of the tethering between philanthropy and power. And what happens when those two are pulled together, we can see it happen in very good ways, but we can see it happen in very negative ways.

I just think the imbalance of all of that is really starting to rise in this section. But again, I think that the fairytale part of the story is that, where power starts to rise and things become imbalanced, the people in this democratic nation start to fill in the gaps where that power is not hitting. They’re filling in the gaps with their own skills, their own donations, their own network, whatever they can bring to bear.

Evan Feinberg

So I want to keep moving us along in American history. So we’re talking about these early philanthropists, but I think a really important thing that’s happening right around the same time is that these individuals that have made considerable resources at the end of the 19th century and then into the early 20th century began to build what we now know as the modern private foundation. 

So what typifies this era is that you have both the associational life that is always and everywhere, what the social sector is: the relationships we have in our community, helping a friend move, and showing up with your church, these are sort of all associational life. We still have so much of that beautiful informal sector that’s out there of people helping people, neighbors helping neighbors. But you start to get this much more formal philanthropic sector of those that are giving toward nonprofits or toward causes that they believe will create this value in communities.

There’s some of the big names we still see today, right? The Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation. Many of these are still some of the most prominent today and continue to have a legacy of this professionalized philanthropy. So I guess the question then is, what does this mean for both the social sector work and that beautiful association life that we said? What does it mean to have it more professionalized? What are the consequences of that? I think that that’s worth discussing for a bit.

Becky Endicott

I mean, I would love to share a story about how this played out in the early 1900s if I can create some space, because I think it’s a great answer to your question. And for anyone that knows the story of the first organized fundraising efforts, it started with the YMCA. 

The short story is that there was a man named Frank Pierce who was tasked with raising money to build this YMCA—in your backyard, Evan, in Washington, DC. And after two years of campaigning, he raised about $270,000. He had about $80,000 left to raise, and the donations had stopped coming in, which as a recovering major gift officer, I feel him so intensely in that moment, because we all know what that feels like when we’ve worked in nonprofit shops.

But Mr. Pierce was pretty darn smart. He employed the help of a man named Charles Sumner Ward. They created what is probably one of the first formalized philanthropic fundraising efforts to raise the rest of the money. They did three really innovative things. One, they engaged a publicist for their campaign and they used corporate donations to pay for advertising. Totally groundbreaking at this time in history. Number two, they purposely kept the campaign short. They gave themselves less than 30 days. They created some urgency. And then they created a campaign clock to ensure that time was passing and that people felt the need to rise up. 

I mean, the end of the story is, by 1913, not only did they pass that marker and successfully raise all that money, they were starting to run an international multi-million dollar campaign using these techniques. And all of a sudden, people are starting to see that philanthropy, when formalized, when paired with business, when paired with community, can really have a very large effect. And that was happening at the early, early onset of the 20th century.

Evan Feinberg

Yeah. I mean, professionalizing these services and making them more sophisticated does create a lot of value, right? Bringing modern techniques about marketing, getting the word out there about efforts that people might get excited about, and rallying support through fundraising, these are positive things that enable us to unlock a bunch more resources.

We of course celebrate these things in financial markets. As things get more sophisticated, it allows investment to flow toward things that will create more value for other people. And so we get excited when we get economic development and more sophisticated investment structures and whatnot, because it unlocks more opportunity for more people.

And seeing the social sector professionalize is not…I think some people might look at it and be like, “Oh, I wish I could go back to Tocqueville. Everything was so much simpler and everyone just sought each other out and they were uniting and solving problems.” And yes, in many ways I would love to continue that ethos and hold onto that ethos, but professionalizing the sector has all kinds of benefits, right? I mean, it enables so many more people to get involved in so many new ways. This is what your podcast is, is talking to literally tens of thousands of people who dedicate their lives to finding new and better ways to create good in the world. I mean, this is a positive, right?

Becky Endicott

This is absolutely a positive. And it underscores to me what I think is the most profound gift that philanthropy gives us, which is that everybody can be a philanthropist. Everybody has something to give. Everybody can rise with what they have. And if you don’t have two nickels to rub together, it’s okay because we still need your hands. We need your ears. We need your network.

Evan Feinberg

Okay. So we’ve talked about the positives. We’re both super excited about bringing more people in, more resources in, more creativity in, more sophistication. We’re all really excited about that. But, and this is not just a small but, Becky, this is like a major, major but.

Becky Endicott

I’m ready for it.

Evan Feinberg

Our sector has actually not delivered phenomenal results. So if you think about the major problems, those social ills that Rockefeller cared about, if we go back to Andrew Carnegie and this sort of sacred privilege and sacred responsibility of using resources to create the most value for people, if you were to look at America today, you’d say, “Well, we sort of are unmoored from accomplishing that goal.” 

Social mobility in America is beginning to go on the decline, which is inconsistent with the idea of America. Our poverty rates haven’t budged in nearly six decades. Importantly, deaths of despair, even well before the pandemic, began to go on the rise. Social anxiety, social isolation, every major indicator of social wellbeing tends to be going the wrong direction in the areas that philanthropy seeks to address.

I’d like to posit that the problem is the topic that we were talking about nationalizing community. That while we were getting all this sophistication, somehow sophistication also meant centralization and top-down control. And so the government’s involvement in becoming, today, much larger than formal philanthropy. Today, the government spends a little over a trillion dollars per year on poverty programs and social programs. Philanthropy, depending on how you measure it, is somewhere between 200 and 400 billion dollars today. One way to say this is we have a bunch of associations like Tocqueville mentioned, but associations without members. And so I think there are some drawbacks to this.

Becky Endicott

It’s something that we have to address, because for philanthropy to work, for these ideations that Tocqueville had, it had to be democratic in nature. The fact that we are starting to see a top-down effect already says it’s not going to be democratic because there’s an imbalance of power. 

I think the power dynamics are so interesting the way that they have morphed in philanthropy. Because if you talk about economics, I mean, philanthropy has been like 4% of GDP for forever, for a very long time. We haven’t moved the needle on that. And that to me is very systemic of the way that the sector has been set up.

I really think that these networks of organizations in law, civil rights, feminism… they were not accountable to member constituencies. But they were professionally staffed, they were more focused on a national level of advocacy as opposed to these localized person-to-person change. I think de Tocqueville saw this a little bit. And because we have so many different associations that have cropped up, partnership has waned, I think. And knowledge sharing has waned and lifting the voice of the person affected in the community has waned. These are the things that I think we need to get back to as a sector that are already rooted in our history. We’ve just forgotten about them.

Evan Feinberg

We left off a pretty major historical development about the growth of government here. It’s sort of in the FDR New Deal era that this really takes hold. This, very well-intentioned idea that we essentially had too many Americans at this point in our history, in a wealthy country, and then certainly once the great depression hit. This idea that we had too many resources to let folks starve on the streets, live without a roof over their head and so on and so forth. I certainly understand this impulse. 

So the federal government then began to step in, certainly state governments as well, but the federal government began to step in and wanted to help to offer a New Deal. This flowed through to the great society in America as well. This declared war on poverty. This idea that we can solve the problems of our social barriers through government plans and programs. And I have my opinions about those government policies.

Becky Endicott

Me too. I know that’ll shock you.

Evan Feinberg

But I think what’s inescapable about that is that it turned the eyes of everyone involved in this work, and ordinary Americans, toward the advocacy that you mentioned. If you were trying to really support a certain constituency, the homeless, those that were experiencing poverty, or those that were marginalized in some way, then your advocacy turned toward convincing the people who controlled those big top-down programs, rather than doing the work in communities. 

Today, as a result of, I believe, this New Deal growth and then the great society growth in centralization and top-down control, the prevailing nonprofit dollars are no longer to organizations doing work to help people live better lives. The prevailing resources go toward either government contracts to do the work or advocacy toward government to become that which the government provides contracts toward.

So you essentially move away from individuals, and there’s still plenty of it, but you’re moving generally away from individuals giving to those things, which they believe will create the most value, toward government contracts and advocacy for government contracts. And I think this is troubling. This is troubling for the future of our sector.

Becky Endicott

It is so troubling. And I was today years old when I learned that stat. I mean, that is a very troubling stat and I’ll juxtapose it with something we’re seeing today in the modern giving era, which is this erosion of the base of support from average individuals. And the belief that people are sharing is that they don’t believe that their small gift can make a difference, when actually it was the collective that built the bedrock of this incredible country and this world that we live in solving these very large societal issues. 

So it is deeply concerning because there are many in the sector today who are trying to reverse that trend. And that’s really the aspirational goal that I have, that I would like to move toward in a modern society.

Evan Feinberg

Absolutely. I think as we think about the state that we’re in today, I think this will be a good preview of what I hope to discuss with you on our next episode together, Becky.

Becky Endicott

I’m rubbing my hands together. Let’s do it.

Evan Feinberg

I want to explore a really important question about why our industry is characterized by what it’s not. We talk about nonprofits, right? I run a nonprofit called Stand Together Foundation. Why are we characterized by what we’re not? But what I want to get at is, “What’s broken about our modern social economy?” 

And here’s a little teaser for that next episode. I hope you like this one as a thought-provoking thing. Why do we call nonprofits in America, “nonprofits” or “not-for-profits,” but similar organizations in Europe are called “NGOs” or “non-governmental organizations”? It’s a funny thing that organizations that look similar are called two different things. Do you think that would be a topic worth exploring on our next episode, Becky?

Becky Endicott

It is literally in the book that I have yet to write. Like, why are we called the thing that we are not? And I cannot wait to dive into this. You are poking the bear with these little teasers that you’re giving. And I’m telling you, I’m putting my boxing gloves on and I am ready to spar and talk about this.

Evan Feinberg

Fantastic. Well, I think that if we could explore that alongside the formalization you started getting at it earlier in this episode—that today you can give money to one of these nonprofits and deduct some money from your taxes—how that came to be, how we got sort of modern 501(c)(3) organizations, and essentially what you and I view as problems in today’s social economy that could be improved as we understand this history… I think we’ll make for a pretty exciting episode next week. So thank you, Becky, for joining me on this Brief History of Good podcast. Thank you for helping take us down this history lesson and beginning to focus us on what we are for as we talk about it.

Becky Endicott

Oh, I’ve loved every minute. Thanks for having me. And I look forward to continuing the conversation.


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