Luminary: A Conversation with Helmut Anheier on a Problematic Philanthropic Trend

Professor Anheier

Professor Helmut K. Anheier “wrote the book” on philanthropy. To be more precise, he has written not only the main textbook we used in Prof. Stanley Katz’s philanthropy class at Princeton (“Nonprofit Organizations: An Introduction”), but also a comprehensive analysis of the history of American foundations (“Foundations and American Society”) and over 300 other scholarly articles and publications on philanthropy and civil society. He also founded Centers for Civil Society at the London School of Economics and UCLA, as well as  VOLUNTAS, one of the best journals around on philanthropy.

As a sociologist by training and current Dean of the Hertie School of Governance, he is a busy man but he was generous enough to sit down with me in Berlin.

I asked Professor Anheier, “As you look out at the transnational philanthropic landscape, what gives you the most cause for concern?”

One worrisome trend Professor Anheier sees is the emerging overreliance on philanthropy to solve challenges in the public sphere which he believes should have solutions worked out by governments or other transnational institutions.

When, for example, the Gates Foundation spends more on global health than all other nations except for the United States and United Kingdom, what impact does that have on the global health funding ecosystem? Can this funding dynamic breed a potentially dangerous fantasy that philanthropy will swoop in to take care of global issues which should be the responsibility of other institutions?

This cautionary note about depending on private philanthropy is relevant not only in the transnational but also in the domestic context, and not only in developing economies, but also in developed (and devolving) ones.  As fiscal woes intensify and government budgets in the US and Europe face increasing shortfalls, the demands on private foundations to adopt orphaned social programs is increasing. Many executive directors in the nonprofit sector in the US already feel this pressure.

There may be some welcome “system efficiencies” uncovered in this process; hard times can sometimes lead to cutting less effective government services. However, it will prove to be a tricky thing for governments to strike a balance between optimal efficiency and derelict deficiency.


  • How will we know when we’ve gone too far in the tradeoff process between public and private institutions?
  • How will we know when our hopes about philanthropy as a rescue mechanism for core social services have proven untenable?
  • Philanthropy tries to be many things to many people, but will it ever have either the scale or power to systematically implement coordinated national (or international) programs and policies in the public interest?

Clearly, philanthropy today is about more than watching the rich give money away to their pet projects.  In such diverse markets as the US, Europe and China, the role played by private philanthropy signals the changing nature of what the state is expected to, able to or angling not to provide.

If we enlarge our perspective and consider philanthropy as a dynamic battle ground for competing sociopolitical ideologies, it is worth the concern and careful criticism not only of dedicated observers such as Professor Anheier, but anyone interested in the future of civil society.


Professor Anheier’s full bio:

Relevant article by Anheier: “What Kind of Nonprofit Sector, What Kind of Society? Comparative Policy Reflections” (American Behavioral Scientist, March 2009, Vol 52, No. 7) available at:
Abstract: “Nonprofit organizations and the nonprofit sector more generally are part of a complex dual transition from industrial to postindustrial society and from national state to transnational policy regimes. This transition shows the beginnings of a new policy dialogue in addressing the future role of nonprofit organizations and involves three broad perspectives that have become prominent in recent years: First, nonprofits are increasingly part of new public management and a mixed economy of welfare; second, they are seen as central to “civil society—social capital” approaches, specifically the Neo-Tocquevillian emphasis on the nexus between social capital and participation in voluntary associations; and third, they are part of a wider social accountability perspective that sees them as instruments of greater transparency, heightened accountability, and improved governance of public  institutions.”    

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