Digital Civil Society Lab

Philanthropy in Democratic Societies


Philanthropy is everywhere. In 2013, in the United States alone, some $330 billion in giving was recorded, from large donations by the wealthy all the way down to informal giving circles. We tend to think of philanthropy as unequivocally good, but as the contributors to this book show, philanthropy is also an exercise of power. And like all forms of power, especially in a democratic society, it deserves scrutiny. Yet it rarely has been given serious attention. This book fills that gap, bringing together expert philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, historians, and legal scholars to ask fundamental and pressing questions about philanthropy’s role in democratic societies.

Research Questions

The contributors balance empirical and normative approaches, exploring both the roles philanthropy has actually played in societies and the roles it should play. They ask a multitude of questions:

  • When is philanthropy good or bad for democracy?
  • How does, and should, philanthropic power interact with expectations of equal citizenship and democratic political voice?
  • What makes the exercise of philanthropic power legitimate?
  • What forms of private activity in the public interest should democracy promote, and what forms should it resist?


A group of 11 scholars from across multiple academic disciplines participated in a series of workshops culminating in the production of an edited volume titled Philanthropy in Democratic Societies (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Participants developed and workshopped chapters over the course of multiple meetings, and the final compilation was edited by Rob Reich, Chiara Cordelli and Lucy Bernholz.



Philanthropy in Democratic Societies

Book edited by Rob Reich, Chiara Cordelli, and Lucy Bernholz