Mar 9, 2021
In this episode we talk to Professor Sir David Cannadine about
history, philanthropy and his forthcoming book on the history of
the Ford Foundation. Among David’s many public roles he is Dodge
Professor of History at Princeton University, President of the
British Academy, Chair of Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery
and a Trustee of the Wolfson Foundation; and in a wide ranging
conversation we discuss:
Involvement in philanthropy:
- What insights has involvement with many charities, foundations
and public institutions given about the strengths, weaknesses,
challenges and opportunities of philanthropy?
- What value has historical insight brought to these practical
- There is currently a lot of controversy over the commemoration
of historical figures, including many philanthropic donors, as well
as the sources of historical wealth. Why is it important for
philanthropic organisations to engage with potentially problematic
elements of their history, and how can they navigate some of the
challenges this may bring?
Studying the History of Philanthropy:
- Do academic historians think in terms of charity or
philanthropy as a standalone thematic area of study, or are they
more likely to think of it in the context of a particular period or
a wider theme (e.g. welfare)?
- If it is thought of as a thematic area in its own right, is it
one that has been sufficiently well-studied?
- Is the study of the history of philanthropy (even in the UK)
too US-focussed; dominated by the great industrial donors of the
Gilded Age? Does this lead us to under-appreciate the UK’s own
history of philanthropy?
- Does “archival inequality” mean that we end up focusing more on
institutions and big name donors when we study history (as they
tend to leave more records), at the expense of the huge numbers of
‘everyday’ donors whose giving may well go unseen? Does this skew
our view of the development of philanthropy?
The History of the Ford Foundation:
- Why is it worth studying the role of an institution like the
- Is the history of the Ford Foundation merely the history of a
single institution or does it bring to light wider truths about
- The history of the Ford Foundation contains many fascinating
characters (e.g. McGeorge Bundy or Paul Ylvisaker). Is the role of
these “philanthropoids” (i.e. people who work in foundations,
rather than donors) an under-researched area of the history of
- The question of the relationship between foundations and social
movements (especially in the context of racial justice) is once
again a major area of debate. What, if anything, can we learn from
the Ford Foundation’s experiences in this area, which have
seemingly won both praise and criticism?