This blog accompanies the Business History Review special issue on Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy

We live today in an age of growing inequality, as authors such as Thomas Piketty have recently highlighted. Yet inequality is not new. Historical research has the opportunity to inform current debates by offering long-run perspectives, expanding understanding. Entrepreneurial philanthropy, the pursuit by entrepreneurs on a not-for-profit basis of big social objectives by investing their economic, cultural, social and symbolic resources, is often assumed to be a contemporary phenomenon, ‘invented’ by the likes of billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. As we show in this Special Issue, the union of entrepreneurship and philanthropy has in fact a long history.

The ideology and practices of entrepreneurial philanthropy have deep roots, originating in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as encapsulated in Andrew Carnegie’s celebrated essay, “The Gospel of Wealth”. Indeed, the articles contained in our Special Issue go even further back. The opening article by guest editors Charles Harvey, Mairi Maclean and Roy Suddaby surveys the history of philanthropy in the North East of England over a period of more than nine hundred years, since the Norman Conquest. Catherine Casson and Mark Casson demonstrate just how significantly philanthropic entrepreneurs contributed to socio-economic development in late medieval England, revealing that the entrepreneurs of the day were more astute in marrying self-interest and the social interest than the landed gentry. Alice Shepherd and Steve Toms explore the relationship between philanthropy and competitive advantage in a study of the cotton textile mills of nineteenth-century Britain – the ‘dark, Satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution immortalized by William Blake in ‘Jerusalem’. Shepherd and Toms show that charitable acts enhanced competitive advantage while legitimating the social status of elites. Niall MacKenzie, Jillian Gordon and Martin Gannon explore how different contextual factors propelled the transformation of a Scottish family whisky business into a philanthropic commercial trust. Their article points to the emergence of interesting hybrid organizations that, like the textile mill owners of the nineteenth century, combine philanthropic and commercial interests in novel ways. Finally, Nicholas Duquette chronicles the far-reaching consequences of tax breaks for wealthy U.S. philanthropists over the past century; shining a light on the close relationship between philanthropy and tax policy in that country. Together, these papers provide much food for thought. As a collection, they amply demonstrate that philanthropy has a long genesis, and that a long-run perspective is needed to fully appreciate its evolution and specificities.

Our hope is that the articles contained in this Special Issues will inspire further historical research on entrepreneurship and philanthropy, serving to uncover the innovative ways in which entrepreneurial philanthropy has contributed, in different contexts and jurisdictions, to the public good, and the attendant rewards, not readily monetized yet tangible nonetheless, that philanthropists have reaped in the process.


Read all articles in the special issue here

Image credit: Peter Fuller / Mill Works Houses in Styal / CC BY-SA 2.0

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