To offer you a shortcut to the top books and essays on philanthropy, we’ve compiled some of the field’s greatest hits—ranging from notable recent works to classics—and sorted them according to general theme for ease of browsing.
We’ve provided short extracts and reviews of many of the crucial works. If you want to dive deeper, we’ve linked to full books and essays.
With a bit of study, this collection will provide you with much of the very best that has been said and done by effective donors.
(To suggest a great book or article for this collection, please email Kari Barbic.)
- Biographies of Some Great Donors
- Strategies for Giving
- Case Studies and the History of U.S. Giving
- Philanthropy and the American Character
- Pursuing Philanthropy Like a Business
- The Role of Moral Issues in Charitable Success
- Charity in Literature
- The Power of Grassroots Civil Society
- The Special Case of Corporate Philanthropy
- Respecting the Intentions of Donors
- In Defense of Private Giving
• • •
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
A highly readable, comprehensive, and fair biography of one of America’s first moguls and most influential large-scale philanthropists. Read Martin Morse Wooster’s review published in Philanthropy magazine.
A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America by John J. Miller
A book-length history of one of America’s most effective twentieth-century foundations, respected by friend and foe alike for its influence on the nation’s intellectual life. Read Wooster’s review for Philanthropy.
Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South
by Peter M. Ascoli
You Need a Schoolhouse by Stephanie Deutsch
Biographies, both by family members, of the man who befriended Booker T. Washington and built 5,000 schoolhouses for African-American children who would otherwise have grown up in ignorance in the first half of the twentieth century. Read Juan Williams’ review of You Need a Schoolhouse and Martin Morse Wooster’s review of Julius Rosenwald for Philanthropy magazine.
George Eastman: A Biography by Elizabeth Brayer
This Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography profiles the business success and vast philanthropy of the founder of Eastman Kodak, whose charities included the Eastman School of Music, MIT, the University of Rochester, the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, dental clinics across the globe, and other projects, many of them launched anonymously.
Foundation Builders: Brief Biographies of Twelve Great Philanthropists by Martin Morse Wooster
Includes chapters on famous donors like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller Sr., George Eastman, and J. Paul Getty.
• • •
“Gain, Save, Give” by John Wesley
In his 1744 sermon, “The Use of Money,” John Wesley, clergyman and founder of Methodism, gives three “plain rules” for the stewardship of wealth. The excerpt provided through the link above highlights Wesley’s key points.
Random Reminiscences of Men and Events by John D. Rockefeller
America’s original grand philanthropist outlines his vision for improving society through benevolent gifts in the last two chapters of his book—“The Difficult Art of Giving” and “The Benevolent Trust.” Read an excerpt from “The Difficult Art of Giving,” where Rockefeller discusses principles of the “best philanthropy.”
“The Best Fields for Philanthropy”
and “The Gospel of Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie
Carnegie’s oft-cited essay “The Gospel of Wealth” contains an impassioned plea to the wealthy to give their money away while they are still able to guide its use, and in “The Best Fields for Philanthropy” he opines on specific areas where public good could be done. For further commentary on Carnegie’s insights, read this analysis by James Otteson. For a look at how his foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, is doing at preserving its founder’s intent today, read Leslie Lenkowsky’s feature piece for Philanthropy magazine.
The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving by Anne Neal and Michael B. Poliakoff
For donors who want to support colleges and universities, the second edition of this short book is a clearly written guide that will help you make sure you get what you pay for. Step-by-step strategies for avoiding common mistakes, plus lots of case histories of college giving done well.
Money Well Spent by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey
A leading advocate of “strategic,” “measured,” “transformational” philanthropy offers suggestions on how to organize one’s giving so as to improve your chances of having prominent effects. Read Matthew Bishop and Michael Green’s review in Philanthropy magazine.
Give Smart by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman
Six big questions that should guide donors who want to get results—topics like “What are my values and beliefs?” and “What is ‘success’ and how can it be achieved?” Read Adam Meyerson’s discussion of the work in Philanthropy.
What Your Money Means by Frank Hanna
A contemporary donor offers guidance on why you have money, what your money calls you to be, how to shield yourself and your loved ones from the dangers inherent in wealth, and how, if philanthropy is your calling, to give wisely. Read George Weigel’s review of the book for Philanthropy.
• • •
Casebook for The Foundation by Joel L. Fleishman, J. Scott Kohler, Steven Schindler
Duke University academics explore 100 of the highest-achieving foundation initiatives of all time, stretching from 1901 to 2002, and touching many fields—medicine, education, employment, law enforcement, ecology, overseas aid, and others. They are all archived online here.
American Philanthropy by Robert Bremner
Though published more than 50 years ago, it remains the preferred single-volume history on the rise of charitable giving in the U.S.
• • •
Who Really Cares? Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why it Matters by Arthur C. Brooks
We all know we should give to charity, but who actually does, and why? A policy expert uncovers the surprising associations among family structure, faith, political views, and giving. One chapter presents evidence that giving is linked to increased personal happiness, individual health, and national wealth. Read the Philanthropy review of this work.
The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism by Claire Gaudiani
Americans are rich because we are generous, and expanded generosity in the future is crucial to keeping our nation healthy and thriving. Read a review of Gaudiani’s book from Philanthropy magazine.
• • •
An Interview with Clayton Christensen by Philanthropy magazine
In addition to sustaining existing organizations where they are effective, philanthropists and other public-spirited Americans should sometimes try to shake up dysfunctional institutions by supporting “disruptive” solutions, says the Harvard Business School’s most prominent professor.
Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins
How to apply the principles of high performance to nonprofit organizations.
Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop & Michael Green
This recent book examines the “venture investing” movement. The authors interview a web of wealthy, motivated donors who have set out to change the world through giving that uses business strategies and expects results and accountability to match. Read this Forbes interview with author Matthew Bishop.
“Catalytic Philanthropy” by Mark Kramer
Rather than leaving all responsibility for finding and implementing solutions to social problems to charitable organizations, ambitious donors can set in motion their own solutions.
“Virtuous Capital: What Foundations Can Learn from Venture Capitalists”
by Christine W. Letts, William Ryan, and Allen Grossman
This short article from the Harvard Business Review argued that funders should not only write checks to non-profits but help them develop their organizational capacity—as venture capitalists do for small businesses.
• • •
“In Praise of Do-It-Yourself Do-Good”
and “Broken Windows Philanthropy” by William Schambra
Two short essays representative of many others produced by a leading critic of current fashions in large scale, “root causes,” measurement-driven, “change the world” philanthropy. He prescribes a humbler, more local, more “charitable” style of helping which accepts the difficulty and sometimes undesirability of transforming people and social institutions.
The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky
Excavates lost history on how poverty can—and cannot—be fought effectively. Concludes that the real problem with much contemporary aid is not that it is too stingy but that it doesn’t address, in a personal way, the damaged hearts and souls that are at the root of much economic failure. Here is a brief bit of relevant reporting by the book’s author.
The Triumphs of Joseph by Robert Woodson
Readers meet a string of neighborhood heroes who are struggling not only against the problems of urban poverty but also against bureaucratic notions of social service fashionable among philanthropists and government officials. Read an extract from the book in which Woodson explains how grassroots social ministries can help the underclass.
Poverty and Compassion by Gertrude Himmelfarb
This Victorian history compares the guiding lights behind the Christian Salvation Army and the socialist Fabians, traces the development of concepts such as unemployment and the poverty line, and concludes that the material and moral dimensions of poverty were inseparable in the minds of the Victorians. Read Peter Berger’s review in Commentary.
• • •
A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness—and A Trove of Letters—Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression
by Ted Gup
An inspiring true story of neighborly grassroots philanthropy. An investigative reporter tracks down the descendants of families helped during the Depression by small anonymous gifts from a businessman in their home town of Canton, Ohio—revealing the lasting consequences of that well-timed aid.
The Perfect Gift
and Giving Well, Doing Good both edited by Amy Kass
Two large collections of readings, mostly literary, that explore the enterprise of philanthropy. Selections range from the classic to the very contemporary, and include considerations of why, how, to whom, and what we should give. Read Joseph Bottum’s review of The Perfect Gift and Scott Walter’s review of Giving Well, Doing Good for Philanthropy.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens,
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens,
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens,
The Warden by Anthony Trollope,
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Nineteenth-century novels that touch on compassion, charity, and kind versus unkind interventions in the lives of others.
• • •
“Civil and Uncivil Societies” by Niall Ferguson
The notable historian and Harvard professor discusses the benefits and accomplishments of private initiative in civil society in a lecture delivered at The Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
French observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited pioneer America and wrote deathless descriptions of what makes the nation exceptional. The bulwark of our democracy, he discovered, is citizens who voluntarily pool their money, expertise, and labor to improve society. Read a short extract here, and visit our collection of readings in defense of private giving
Reclaiming the American Dream by Richard Cornuelle
This groundbreaking 1965 work revived the idea, at a time of rising centralism, that individuals and communities can often solve their problems more effectively than government bureaucracies. Read a short extract from this work and an extract from a 1999 talk by Cornuelle delivered to The Philanthropy Roundtable.
“Bigger Is Not Better” by Robert Nisbet
In this extract from Nisbet’s classic The Quest for Community, he notes the benefits of smaller-scale organizations and their ability to console, soften, and enrich life—observing that larger, bureaucratic institutions can often be less socially wholesome than more modest human-scale philanthropy.
• • •
“The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” by Milton Friedman
A classic New York Times Magazine essay where Nobel-winner Milton Friedman insists that, when it comes to corporations, the most “pro-social” use of funds is to make the business thrive, not to give money to non-profits.
“Business and Philanthropy” by Irving Kristol
Businesses have no obligation to give away money, writes editor, author, and think-tank scholar Irving Kristol, and if they choose to, they should do so in ways that serve the interests of their enterprise.
“The Competitive Advantage of Corporate Philanthropy” by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer
Rather than making PR-driven corporate donations, companies should give to improve their competitive standing, urges this Harvard Business Review article. Exxon Mobil makes large donations to improve roads in developing countries where it operates. The film studio DreamWorks trains students in skills required by the entertainment industry. Tech-dependent businesses may donate to institutions that improve math and science skills.
The Market for Virtue: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility by David Vogel
An assessment of the movement for “corporate social responsibility” by a Berkeley professor who concludes that while it has achieved some success in improving labor, human rights, and environmental practices in developing countries, there are limits and substantial costs to “socially responsible” business behavior.
• • •
The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent
by Martin Morse Wooster
Wooster provides history’s worst examples of disrespect for donor intent as well as happier stories of donor intent preserved.
“The Principles of Public Giving” by Julius Rosenwald
In this Atlantic Monthly article, one of the great early philanthropists strongly encourages donors to resist setting up permanent bureaucracies that dribble out money in their name for centuries, and instead give more rapidly to address the needs of their present time, preferably while they are alive to guide the spending wisely. Read the full essay by clicking on the title above and read Martin Morse Wooster’s perspective in Philanthropy magazine.
Protecting Donor Intent: How to Define and Safeguard Your Philanthropic Principles by Jeffrey J. Cain
and Should Foundations Exist in Perpetuity?
by Heather R. Higgins and Michael S. Joyce
Short guidebooks from The Philanthropy Roundtable which examine practical aspects of making sure a foundation stays true to the principles and interests of the donor, even after he or she passes from the scene.
• • •
This collection of brisk, short texts on philanthropic freedom outlines the vital role private giving has always played in improving America, and why it is important to defend philanthropy
This collection of brisk, short texts on philanthropic freedom outlines the vital role private giving has always played in improving America, and why it is important to defend philanthropy’s continuing value to the nation.
“The Great Charitable Myth” by Heather R. Higgins
A commentary on the danger of treating philanthropic dollars as public money.
“Beware the Concept of ‘Tax Expenditures’”
by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus
A cautionary about using the slippery term “tax expenditures” to describe the measures that protect private charities from taxation.
“What’s Behind Recent Attacks on the Charitable Tax Deduction?” by Joanne Florino
Opponents believe the government knows how to spend money better than private citizens and that monolithic solutions trump diversity and experimentation.
“Democracy in Action” by Stephen L. Carter
Individuals acting as donors measure community needs differently than centralized policy makers.
“America is Built on Giving” by Adam Meyerson
Philanthropic freedom is an indispensable part of political freedom.
“How Foundations Should and Should Not Be Held Accountable” by Adam Meyerson
The independence of foundations is essential to a free society.
“Necessary, Important, and in Jeopardy” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan
A timely warning from the late Senate icon on the subject of government vs. private social aid.
“The Myth of the ‘Third’ Sector” by Irving Kristol
Philanthropy is part of the private sector, and needs to be defended against centralizing impulses.