Philanthropy in the World's Traditions

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 10, No 2 (Fall 1999)

Edited by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz, and Edward L. Queen II 1998, 382 pages, Indiana University Press. Bloomington, Indiana

I wanted to love this book. It was my first real assignment since beginning to write book reviews for the GIA Newsletter. Unfortunately, Philanthropy in the World's Traditions reads like a collection of Ph.D. dissertations, an interesting subject wrung dry. I know for a fact that had I not taken the book with me to jury duty without anything else to read or do for at least seven hours, I never would have gotten through it. Nonetheless, as I review my notes to write this column, I find that the collection of essays elicited thoughts that bear reviewing.

Philanthropy in the World's Traditions is a collection of essays by various authors reviewing the history of philanthropy as it is evinced in various geographic regions, nations, and religions. The book divides the essays into sections — 1) non-literate/ aboriginal traditions, 2) historical and textual roots, 3) philanthropy in context, 4) philanthropy and social change, and finally 5) examining how new forms of philanthropy derive from their historical basis. The breakdown and sub-headings seem arbitrary as each essay independently covers most of the sub-texts.

The umbrella under which the essays purport to huddle is an examination of the global impulse towards philanthropy. Perhaps the topic is too large to find shelter under one umbrella and that's what makes the reading so rough. It may be too much to examine Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, missionary work, Islamic law, tribal traditions, corporate giving, and more all in one volume. Philanthropy is defined at the outset simply as activities of voluntary serving and giving to others beyond one's family. Further, the editors add that philanthropic acts become the preeminent means by which people attempt to realize their understanding of cultural values, in essence to practice what their culture preaches. The essays probe the insertion of public/private notions into patrimonial or dynastic patterns of giving. Together they assert that most cultures assume responsibility for the unfortunate, the poor, convicts, and criminals knowing that such states are random and must be addressed for the good of the community. Perhaps this is the party line in most cultures, but the reality of philanthropy implies motives in giving that are at least suspect.

My favorite section of the book is the one on non-literate/aboriginal traditions. It is interesting to note that even in cultures where members cared for one another, tribally and communally, privilege often took the form of a protectionism in which those who were helped became dependent and the dependency at times shaded towards slavery. However, of all the cultures reviewed the pre-colonial African and Native American seemed to have a charitable impulse that most directly recognized the need to keep each member of a community healthy and whole. Also in this section a lovely poem, written by a young Tlingit poet appears and makes slogging through the whole book worthwhile. It reads:

As a man stands on earth
He has only two reasons
For being here:
Living and dying.
And whatever comes between
Is just a form of being remembered.

Drawing on my notes, I offer a sampling of memorable ideas from other chapters.

Hindus emphasize individual responsibility for the well being of the world, tempered with cautionary tales about shifting the balance of power. Generosity and service to others is central to Buddhism. Generous giving is not only a basic virtue, but serves as a pivotal practice on the path to enlightenment. Whereas the philanthropy of granting agents and organizations in western civilization is geared to having a quid pro quo, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Janism have neither quid nor quo.

Islamic law, or waqf, encourages endowments for the public good as they will benefit the donor's soul. And, inheritance laws under the waqf include setting aside property and services for the needy as the requirement for immobilizing property for designated heirs — a mix of private and public obligation.

The Chinese instinct towards benevolence was so strong at one time that all giving was done anonymously. In later times, however, inscribed tablets, wine drinking ceremonies, exemption from taxes, and the promise of heavenly reward strengthened the institution of giving, but diluted the purpose. Sound familiar? An extensive review of Japanese giving from dynastic powers through Confucianism to modern times finds that the government plays such a strong role in public service and social welfare that philanthropy in Japan has grown very slowly.

An interesting study of nineteenth century American missionary philanthropy begins with the Mt. Holyoke women's mission. Missionary work converted and educated a worldwide sisterhood. The missions presented an opportunity for leadership and service that was rare for women at the time. Because of missionary work, women developed a new commitment to the education and welfare of women and children both within and outside their own countries. Through apocryphal tales from three countries, this essay shows that women missionaries were based in part on the cultural qualities of a place and in part on the degree of stress it experienced from outside forces. In areas of cultural strength and low stress people adopted only as much of the missionaries' message that they needed. In areas of cultural and spiritual strength but great outside pressures and stress, missionary teachings were rejected, but their protection was sought. Other essays on Jewish, Russian, and Orthodox Serbian giving are labored and filled with footnotes, facts, and figures.

After absorbing as much of the information as I can, I find that the book's lesson comes down to a basic fact. In cultures across the world and from time immemorial, a natural instinct towards philanthropy becomes rigid as it is institutionalized, and giving is increasingly based on terms desired by the giver, not necessarily on the needs of the recipient. This evolution has frequently had the effect of destroying cultures and lives in a desire to impose on others what the donor sees as charity. Perhaps without intending to, the authors and editors have given the reader a rather unflattering view of philanthropy, one that raises questions about the efficacy of philanthropic systems — be they religious, governmental, organizational, or personal.

As an antidote to dry reading, I suggest a collection of essays, stories, and passages by Pulitzer Prize winning author N. Scott Momaday, The Man Made of Words. This deeply moving and thought provoking collection comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Momaday, a Kiowa Indian, writes of land, language, and identity in America from a fresh and challenging perspective. Among other ideas, Momaday explores differences in culture that are based on language and on how thoughts are communicated, and he considers the way meaning in language is minimized when it passes from oral tradition to written records. The pieces are fascinating studies of the frequently deleterious effects of progress. Combining a deft skill for painting word pictures, using an academic context, and mixing in the direct truth and purity of the best of indigenous world views, the author makes us long for simpler times and reminds us of the need for true communication, not more communication.

Review by Marina Drummer