Let Them Give: Philanthropic Infrastructure and Industry in the United States



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Historically, philanthropy has occupied a contested space in American life in regards to its role in social welfare. As a result, at different points, the organization and work of private philanthropic foundations has been met with suspicion by lawmakers in the United States. Today, there is a renewed emphasis on philanthropy by lawmakers, scholars, and practitioners as partners to the state in shaping social welfare and well-being. This dissertation investigates the emergence and ongoing work of philanthropic infrastructure organizations as one space where philanthropic foundations in the United States have garnered and maintained their legitimacy as purported democratic actors, arbiters of social innovation, and sustainers of public goods. I use three sources of evidence: an analysis of the hearings of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee in regards to the Tax Reform Act of 1969’s proposed regulations of philanthropic foundations; analysis of meeting minutes of the Peterson and Filer Commissions; and interviews with current leaders of philanthropic infrastructure organizations. Drawing from institutional ethnography as a model for inquiry, I explore how the “relations of ruling” within the institution of philanthropy are infused into not just the actions and decisions of either wealthy donors as individuals or large endowments with their own operational decision-making, but throughout a sectoral ecosystem with organizations that develop and administer forms of knowledge about philanthropy as a purported tool of/resource for democracy, and are challenged by those who are positioned as the beneficiaries of philanthropy. This work contributes sociologically to understanding how fields emerge in relation to cultural interpretations, and how the dimensions of such fields are contested and renegotiated by the actors within them over time. Last, this dissertation contributes a sociological framework for social change advocates navigating the broad terrain of petitioning for philanthropic resources while protecting the mission of their work.