When we talk about philanthropic giving in the United States, many of us may think about things like tax deductions, endowments, or (more recently) caps on campaign giving. The system is so complex that there isn’t much thought, truly can’t be much thought, given to how we got here in the first place. The history of philanthropic giving and nonprofits in general is quite long in the United States. We have, historically, been pretty good at taking care of our neighbors and doing things for the civic good. Indeed, one could even argue that the formation of our republic as we know it today is a reflection of the need to do something for the civic good (in this case, collecting taxes).
You may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with masculinity in the United States? Well, I’ll tell you! In the late 1800’s two men rose to prominence as they made fortunes far more vast than any that had ever before been seen. These men were John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, both giants in the fledgling oil industry. The Jossey-Bass Handbook on Nonprofit Leadership and Management states that Rockefeller’s chief assistant exclaimed to him “Your fortune is rolling up, rolling up like and avalance!. . . You must keep up with it! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children’s children.”
When I read that quote last September, I couldn’t help but think about the model of masculinity this displayed. The assistant could have asked for a raise, a substantial one, but instead he advocated for Rockefeller giving his fortune away. What’s more, that’s exactly what Rockefeller did! He was a benefactor of education for all, medical science, and the general improvement of society. Unfortunately for Rockefeller, and many of his contemporaries, they were not people that could legitimately be put up on a pedestal. Biographer Ron Chernow wrote of Rockefeller, “What makes him problematic—and why he continues to inspire ambivalent reactions—is that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure.”
I can’t help but wonder what the impact would be if people had followed his good side, rather than his bad. How would we be different if that group of men had also been slightly better than the average man? The fact remains though, that it is not too late to throw out the bad and bring in the good. Consider, if you will, the good qualities of those who have shaped our culture and strive to emulate them. While most of us don’t have fortunes “rolling up like an avalanche” the desire and ability to do good is with each of us.