Our Favourite Question

Expert opinion

Everyone has a favourite question they like being asked. For some it’s a style compliment disguised as a query: “Love your top, where did you get it?”; for others it’s an excuse to talk about sports: “How’s your team doing?” For us, as philanthropy scholars who spend as much time as we can with practitioners, there’s no question we enjoy more than being asked by colleagues on the frontline: “Can you recommend any good books about philanthropy?” It’s a great question, and it’s fantastic to bump into the questioner a few months later and hear them enthuse about the suggested reading: how it provided evidence to make a needed change, or gave a broader context for a situation that had felt uniquely challenging, or was simply much-needed ‘brain food’ that re-energised their passion for this fascinating sector.

Seeing how much our impromptu suggestions helped those working in philanthropy was a primary inspiration behind our latest book, The Philanthropy Reader, which contains extracts from almost a hundred of the best classic and contemporary writings on philanthropy, in one handy – and reasonably priced! – volume. 

Pardon the hackneyed expression, but creating this book has been a labour of love. We are fortunate to interact with wonderful thinking and writing about philanthropy on a daily basis in our teaching and research, and we wanted to make that accessible to everyone who cares about philanthropy – not just students but also thoughtful practitioners including charity CEOs, fundraisers, grant-makers, philanthropy advisers, as well as donors who are often just as hungry for reading tips.

But where to start? Everyone has heard of Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, has some inkling that Aristotle mentioned philanthropy, has probably read opinion pieces in broadsheet newspaper by public intellectuals like Peter Singer, seen TED talks on new trends in giving, and is aware that more cerebral donors like Bill Gates make thoughtful statements about their philanthropic outlook. But how to access these disparate writings? And how to know what is and isn't worth reading by authors that lack instant name recognition?

Our task was to search the wealth of writing and thinking about philanthropy, including historical accounts, reflections on ethical issues, and heated debates about concepts such as ‘new philanthropy’ and ‘effective altruism’, to select the most important and influential pieces of writing that capture the nature, development, and diversity of our field. We set ourselves the additional task of avoiding US- or UK-centrism, a common crime in books on philanthropy that over-focus on famous philanthropists from those two shores and seem oblivious to the existence and importance of private giving in every country and in every era. We are proud that The Philanthropy Reader includes extracts that discuss philanthropy in the building of modern India, issues relating to power and philanthropy in Africa, and first-person accounts by philanthropists from China and the Ukraine, among others.

Each of the six sections in the Reader (What is philanthropy?; Philanthropy across time and place; Being a philanthropist; Philanthropists and beneficiaries: a complex relationship; Philanthropic practices and institutions; and Debates about making philanthropy better) begins with an overview which puts the readings in broader context and highlights the key features of, and dissent between, the selected extracts. We also provide discussion questions for each section and an accompanying eResource that lists further great writing and links to useful online resources.

So next time you bump into one of us, please still feel free to ask our favourite question. But don’t be surprised if we now just suggest that our Reader is the best place to start discovering the wonderful world of both classic and cutting-edge writing about philanthropy.

The Philanthropy Reader costs £39.99 and can be ordered here

Sincere thanks to Pears Foundation and the Gandyr Foundation for supporting the creation of this book