A modern take on the role of philanthropy

The value and the limitations of philanthropy is explored in Rhodri Davies's book Public Good by Private Means, writes Andy Hillier

The Victorian era may well have played a significant role in shaping modern philanthropy in Britain but, as this book by Rhodri Davies shows, the history of modern philanthropy goes back much further.book review

Davies, who works in the policy team at Charities Aid Foundation, begins his examination of modern philanthropy by looking at the impact of the Reformation on the way people give. The decision by Henry VIII to break with the church of Rome, argues Davies, started a move away from giving for the "spiritual betterment of the donor" to one where individuals became more concerned with the need to help others.

He moves on to consider the effect of welfare and government on the evolution of philanthropy and how its place has changed in society.

Highlights include his analysis of how philanthropy came to be viewed with suspicion during the Victorian era as little more than "an agreeable pastime for the middle classes", and how the emergence of state welfare in the first half of the 20th century prompted an identity crisis for philanthropy that some believed could effectively end this way of giving.

A good feature is that plenty of case studies are included, providing useful insights into the achievements, motivations and failures of both well-known and lesser-known philanthropists.

The book shows that, throughout history, philanthropy has played a leading role in tackling social problems and addressing unmet need, but equally it exposes the limitations of private donors' money. Expect philanthropy to solve all of our social problems and it is bound to fail.

Public Good by Private Means: How Philanthropy Shapes Britain, Rhodri Davies, Alliance Publishing Trust/Charities Aid Foundation, £18

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