The passing of a beloved civic benefactor like H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who died last Sunday at the age of 88, provides a moment to celebrate philanthropy — but also to reflect critically on its place in American society. This, at least, is how I approached the news. I'm a native of the Philadelphia suburbs who has long enjoyed the city's cultural amenities, many of which Lenfest funded generously, and a longtime reader of the Inquirer and Daily News (especially the sports pages), which Lenfest's philanthropy helped put on a path of sustainability in a tough time for local journalism.
But I'm also a scholar of philanthropy who studies private giving's relationship to democracy. So I view Lenfest's philanthropic legacy within the context of the recent rise of mega-philanthropy that has been one of the defining characteristics of these last few decades. Lenfest was one amongst a corps of actively engaged donors, with billions to direct toward favored causes, who are dramatically reshaping cities across the nation. This is a development that I approach with more ambivalence, since it's a product of the mushrooming of enormous personal fortunes that are themselves a reflection of surging wealth inequality. And this inequality is a problem for our democracy.
Is it hard to sustain both attitudes — to applaud philanthropy for the civic contributions it makes while also acknowledging the dangers it can pose? Sure, but it also represents a tension with a long history. In fact, the dominant American attitude toward philanthropy for at least a century has been ambivalence, a tincture of gratitude and apprehension. This is in part due to the fact that philanthropy has long been regarded through the lens of partisan politics; various camps have praised the contributions of their ideological allies as essential to the support of democracy while denouncing the contributions of their ideologically antagonists as a threat to democracy. One man's George Soros is another's Charles Koch, and vice versa. But even more generally, Americans have struggled to balance both an egalitarian commitment to voluntarism, which can be expressed through charitable giving, and a suspicion of power, which can be triggered when those gifts amount to sizable sums.
In fact, during the first Gilded Age, at the turn of the last century, the public reception given to the major public benefactions of industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller combined praise and alarm. Their gifts received plenty of plaudits, but also provoked concerns that the enormous foundations the givers were constructing would soon dwarf and overwhelm the capacities of the government. There was a discomfort with the massive, unaccountable power they wielded, even if many believed it was benevolently directed, and disquiet at the ways in which their giving seemed to legitimate the exploitative economic systems and labor practices that had produced their wealth.
Strikingly, many of the earlier generation of major philanthropists also seemed to harbor an uneasiness with the relationship between philanthropy and democracy and sought to structure their gifts in ways meant to decrease the public's reliance on its benefactors. Carnegie (public libraries), Rockefeller (public health departments) and Julius Rosenwald (Southern public schools) all insisted that ultimate responsibility for the institutions they founded through their largesse would be borne by taxpayers. As Edwin Embree, the long-serving head of the Rosenwald Fund, once explained, "One of the purposes of foundations is to make themselves unnecessary."
In a way, Lenfest's philanthropy, and especially his giving to sustain the city's leading newspapers, can be fit into this larger tradition. Checking the income inequality that fuels philanthropy requires an active, vigorous press, one willing to interrogate the legal and regulatory structures that have amplified the massive personal fortunes of this second Gilded Age. And a Philadelphia that is less dependent on the generosity of its philanthropists because more of its social goods are provided through governmental funds, allocated by public bodies accountable to citizens, is possible only if those citizens are well-informed.
We can honor Gerry Lenfest by celebrating the virtues of philanthropy — and by recognizing its limits.