Thinking Historically About Donating Your Time and Money

MonizAmanda Moniz is the Associate Director of the National History Center and the author of From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism. (Some of you may recall that she recently visited The Author’s Corner to discuss this book).

Over at the blog of Oxford University Press, Amanda has published a fascinating post about how her study of the history of philanthropy influences her decisions about how to donate her time and money in the present.  It is a great model for the way historical thinking can inform these kind of everyday decisions and moves beyond some of the far-reaching historical analogies that are often used in public discourse.

Here is a taste:

I approach questions about humanitarianism both with my historian’s mindset and with contemporary concerns. For a time, the two ways of thinking led to intellectual – and moral – paralysis. I eventually realized that the question I had been asking is how can historical perspectives help with decision-making? In my role at the National History Center of the American Historical Association, I think about this question in relation to policy conversations. I believe that understanding the history behind today’s policy challenges can meaningfully inform public decision-making. It was when I sought to apply this belief to my own life that I had to think more carefully about what I meant.

A reason for my dilemma, I realized, was that I initially considered questions about contemporary philanthropy by making analogies to the past. In the late eighteenth century, doctors played leading roles in the spread of innovative charitable institutions around the Atlantic world thanks to their strong networks. Recognizing doctors’ role and the professional imperatives that shaped it is important for understanding eighteenth-century humanitarianism. Analogizing from it to ask how a novel charitable movement today had spread across the United States, however, proved unhelpful. The contexts are too different for the parallels to be meaningful.

Once I quit trying to draw analogies, I was able to reflect more holistically and found that my exploration of leading American and British philanthropists of the eighteenth century helped me think about where I wanted to make a contribution. The men I study acted both locally and globally. They founded and ran charities in their cities and collaborated with far-flung friends to advance medical charity, anti-poverty efforts, antislavery, prison reform, and other causes around the Atlantic and beyond. They were motivated by sincere concern for the well-being of humanity. In the years after the American Revolution, Americans and Britons also used their correspondence about beneficent projects to feel out their new relationship to one another. Transatlantic philanthropy helped them contribute to transnational conversations. Thinking about that dimension to my subjects’ activities helped me realize that I feel most equipped to participate in local conversations about poverty, gentrification, and inequality. As a result, I have chosen to focus my energies on local organizations.

Read the entire post here.