Why Dr. Maribel Morey's "White Philanthropy" is an Essential Read for Philanthropy Advisors

During much of my 2021 year-end winter break, I had the pleasure of reading Dr. Maribel Morey’s new book, White Philanthropy, which traces the intellectual roots of one of the most influential studies of race relations in the United States, An American Dilemma.

In many ways, this rigorous (yet highly accessible) scholarly work should be required reading for any philanthropy advisor in 2022. It offers several important lessons for addressing contemporary challenges at the intersection of race, power, and giving.

I am certainly not a scholar of the history of philanthropy and won’t attempt to fully summarize the richness of the book or Morey’s outstanding scholarship; only a full read of the book will do that justice. Her summary on her “HistPhil” blog from November 2021 articulates the book’s thesis nicely:

“To this day, An American Dilemma remains one of the most expensive studies of race ever conducted in the United States and is still regarded as a defining text shaping how many Americans discuss racial equality. According to U.S. sociologist Aldon D. Morris, for example, An American Dilemma is ‘the most famous and influential study of race every produced.’ Further noting the continued influence of An American Dilemma in U.S. life and referring to former president Barack Obama’s Martin Luther King Day speech in 2008, U.S. historian Thomas J. Sugrue then commented that ‘Obama’s high-minded words echo those of Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, whose 1944 book An American Dilemma still defines the basic dynamics of racial politics in America.’

White Philanthropy unearths the global origin story of An American Dilemma, illuminating the colonial African links between An American Dilemma and two earlier studies—The Poor White Problem in South Africa (1932) and An African Survey (1938), also funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York—illustrating how all three studies were, in fact, part of Carnegie Corporation’s funding of social science research in the 1920s and 1930s meant to help white policymakers in the Anglo-American world address perceived problems in their governance of Black people.”

Across hundreds of pages of thorough research and impressive archival analysis, Morey painstakingly traces the origins of An American Dilemma going back decades before its publication. In so doing, she paints a compelling picture that upends the traditional American Dilemma narrative: rather than Carnegie Corporation investing in the work out of genuine concern for Black Americans and structural racism in the United States, the foundation’s primary interest was more in using social science research methods to better inform white policymakers and officials as to how to effectively maintain white supremacy in an era when collective Black consciousness was on the ascendancy both in the US and abroad. In so doing, Morey paints a fairly damning picture of Carnegie’s motivations but also reminds the reader that their biases and priorities were by no means out of step with the times, with eugenics and racial superiority being mainstream in a way that strikes a contemporary reader as equal parts appalling and anachronistic.

The book focuses on a period from the 1920s through the early 1940s, raising the question: what can those of us working in philanthropy today draw from a narrative rooted in what feels like an increasingly distant era? The answer is: plenty. Morey draws out several themes that remain as pertinent as ever. Among them:

  1. The risk of letting old boys (and girls) networks drive philanthropy strategy and decision making. The middle section of Morey’s book takes a deep and detailed dive into the making of An American Dilemma’s antecedent study: An African Survey. That massive cooperative research effort was an attempt to glean lessons learned across colonial Africa that could inform and help maintain continued colonial, white control on the continent in the 1930s.What struck me most about this history was the crucial role that a small number of advisors at Chatham House, in London, played in both shaping and overseeing the final report for Carnegie president Frederick Keppel. Similarly, a select number of trusted advisors in South Africa were extremely influential in shaping The Poor White Problem in South Africa, Keppel’s first experiment in leveraging cooperative research methods towards reaffirming white rule on the continent. In many ways things haven’t changed for many foundations today: select individuals often have an outsized influence on even the largest philanthropies, frequently to the detriment of more nuanced and constructively critical voices.
  2. Current debates in philanthropy about the appropriate role of certain research methods are not as new as we might think. The “worm wars” of several years ago, for example, which pitted the “effective altruism” camp against those in philanthropy who railed against the rise of randomized control trials, felt novel at the time: an argument about fit-for-purpose research methods. In fact, Morey’s book reminds us that similar debates can be traced back to the rise of the social sciences more generally at the turn of the 20th century. Her work paints a fascinating picture of the debates and arguments over team structure, editorial independence, authorship, and methods associated with all three seminal studies that take center stage in White Philanthropy. These arguments have significant influence on the efficacy of one of philanthropy’s most powerful “products:” rigorous, field shaping research tomes aimed at influencing public policy. White Philanthropy reminds us that the methods can matter as much as the meat of these research efforts. They also carry with them a host of biases and baked-in power imbalances that need to be explicitly addressed and mitigated.
  3. Are living donors really worse than the alternative? For as much as staff working at philanthropies governed by living donors complain about the complications of having their benefactors roaming the proverbial hallways, White Philanthropy reminds us that donors who have passed on to the next world might be equally constraining. A fascinating early section of the book focuses on the politics and interpersonal dynamics associated with who on Carnegie Corporation’s early boards of directors was considered the true torch bearer of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic intent. Carnegie’s former personal secretary, James Bertram, seized that role and pushed the Carnegie board towards a particular and specific focus on “communities of Whites,” being the foundation’s priority with regard to his philanthropy in the “English-speaking commonwealths.”As Bertram saw it, and as he was able to successfully push the Carnegie board, “White Anglo-Americans indeed were the community of people whom Carnegie sought to aid with the establishment of philanthropic foundations in the United States and Great Britain, and so too the people he sought to unite under his vision for global peace.” This despite Andrew Carnegie himself rarely writing in such explicit terms during his lifetime. In the absence of a living donor, divining “philanthropic intent” is often left to the arguments and debates of those left behind… and the outcomes may not always be optimal, as White Philanthropy reminds us.

There are many other fascinating insights sprinkled throughout this rich book; it represents scholarship that anyone advising donors today would be wise to digest. A huge tip of the hat to Dr. Morey, who put years of research (and learning Swedish!) into what is clearly a labor of love. White Philanthropy also reaffirms the crucial role of rigorous scholarship in informing the future by illuminating the past, something we all will benefit from.

Nathaniel Heller is Geneva Global’s Managing Director and oversees all of the firm’s client-facing work and deliverables. Those services range from supporting philanthropists as they identify priority areas for investment, including potential co-funders and implementing partners; developing operational strategies to execute high-impact philanthropic programs; running programs in high-need geographies; and distilling successes, failures, and insights to inform future philanthropic giving. Nathaniel works closely with all of Geneva Global’s delivery teams to ensure that our clients’ philanthropic investments achieve maximum impact and return on investment.

You can reach him at nheller@genevaglobal.com, read his full bio here, and visit his LinkedIn profile here.

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