editorial: philanthropy and the welfare state

 When philanthropy is talked about today, people invariably think of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who donated much of their fortune to a foundation to combat illiteracy and disease in the global South. [1] Yet there is also much philanthropy in the North: philanthropic organisations are among the most significant components of civil society and provide support of all sorts to impoverished or vulnerable groups. Conservative governments such as that of David Cameron in Great Britain extol this form of socio-political intervention as a remedy against the allegedly over-costly and ultimately unaffordable welfare state. Others find it objectionable that rich individuals should single-handedly, not to say autocratically, decide to whom or to what institution they will give their money and furthermore reduce their tax liability in doing so. Is the Big Society the antithesis to the Big State? Does the promotion of voluntary engagement imply a return to a rightlessness in which the poor are assisted only if they satisfy stringent and not infrequently arbitrary moral criteria? On the one hand we have philanthropic bodies and initiatives that are seen as the work of engaged citizens who voluntarily dedicate themselves to combating social ills, and on the other state institutions understood as democratically legitimated public bodies mediating a collectively guarantee social security. Yet what is the relationship between these two systems of welfare provision? Is philanthropy a complement or a competitor to the welfare state? Or are the two systems functionally interdependent, each having developed with the existence of the other in view?

            The voluntary or non-profit sector once promoted by New Labour as a “Third Sector” between state and market [2] cannot itself be understood in isolation from the history of social security. Yet it is only in recent years that the social sciences have begun to pay due attention to this fact. For a long time, attention was focused on the emergence and development of the social insurance principle and models of social assistance. [3] Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s highly influential typology of the welfare state is based on the relative importance of public (state) and private (market and household/family) provision, without reference to the informal and voluntary sectors. [4] Research since the mid-1990s has made increasing use of the notion of a ‘mixed economy of (social) welfare’ or the ‘welfare mix’ between public and private providers, [5] thus taking account of the plurality of socio-political institutions, actors, mechanisms and modes of provision and the multiplicity of concepts of society and social goals that underlie them (welfare pluralism), [6] though the focus has chiefly fallen on the commercial sector, on life insurance and private pension schemes and health insurance. [7] Even so, a central feature of modern social security has become clear: the more or less highly developed yet always ambivalent, contradictory, conflictual, competitive, sometimes complementary and in some cases or aspects even cooperative relationship between market and state.

            The voluntary sector presents conceptual parallels in terms of pluralism or mixity: no clear line can be drawn with state on one side and private individuals, associations and foundations on the other. Research on voluntary/non-profit activities is still in its infancy, not only because of the dominance of state-focused already evoked, but also, as Pat Thane has noted, for a number of entirely pragmatic reasons. The activities of these actor-groups have always been mostly local, often ephemeral and, above all, very rarely well documented. Long-term membership statistics, data series on endowments, even reliable figures on the number of organisations are only rarely available. [8] However, the articles in this volume (many of them case studies) testify to the social proximity of philanthropic and governmental circles and the multiple roles of individual actors, who not infrequently hold posts in different fields and institutions, in state, civil society and the private realm, while being engaged in networks that span different milieux and interest groups.

            As well as personal interaction between private and state actors, there is a not infrequent mutual determination of state and voluntary sector policy. In a historically grounded theoretical essay, Margaret Tennant has noted the porosity of the welfare boundary over the years. In this she evokes the case of New Zealand, where government agencies used the employees of voluntary organisations to fulfil state functions in the probation and prison services. [9] This is by no means an isolated example, with similar arrangements being found in many other countries, though we shall limit ourselves here to one further example, from Switzerland. The turn of the 19th century in Europe saw the systematic development of custodial and reformative punishment (even if corporal punishment and shame punishments survived to some extent). This was accompanied by penal reform and the codification of criminal law. The 1830s thus saw the emergence in many Swiss cantons of Schutzaufsichtsvereine, associations providing support and supervision to prisoners upon their release – inspired there, as elsewhere, by the English Quaker Elisabeth Fry. These did not long survive, except in the canton of St. Gallen, where a Schutzaufsicht was established by law in 1839. While the association was a private body, it was formed on the initiative of the cantonal government. Its personnel operated in a borderland between private benevolence and public penality, reflected in its description of itself as a “[private] association having an official character”. [10] To what extent and in what circumstances it is possible to speak as Jane Lewis does of a “partnership” between voluntary sector and state is a question that cannot be settled here. [11] What has certainly proved methodologically useful is Roderick Findlayson’s often cited notion of a “moving frontier” between the two, a line constantly reassessed and renegotiated as required. [12]

            The boundary is moreover porous. Closely tied to the reciprocal adjustment of policy by state and voluntary sector is their financial collaboration. Although many philanthropic social projects were launched as donation-funded initiatives, their expansion has depended in varying degrees on subsidy from public funds, showing that even in the days of the enlarged welfare state after the Second World War, the “state” was never willing or able to take on responsibility for all social policy tasks. After the War, William Henry Beveridge himself – generally seen as the quintessential advocate of public, tax-funded social security – argued that this should be supplemented by state cooperation with voluntary welfare initiatives. [13] Although the national government and/or local authorities – more especially in the periods immediately following the two world wars – took over responsibility for a number of domains of social intervention developed by philanthropic organisations, very many social policy fields were still left to the non-for-profit sector. And while others again were (co)financed by government, responsibility in practice still remained with the private funders. In the 20th century, the specialized expertise of philanthropic actors – often women [14] – proved increasingly indispensable to ever more complex modern societies, not only in providing palliatives in times of social and political disturbance, but also afterwards, when the state had taken on responsibility for popular welfare.

            But what does the voluntary sector actually consist of? And what is the place of philanthropy within it? The terminology is itself as variable as the activities it covers are various. [15] The ‘voluntary’, ‘third’, ‘civil-society’ or ‘non-governmental’ sector covers not only traditional charitable assistance but also collective social services and private welfare reform initiatives. Our concern here is with the latter, what Christian Topalov called the nébuleuse réformatrice – the campaigns and networks established by philanthropists, concerned not simply with the alleviation of want or other welfare provision but with a rational and coordinated project of society essentially aimed at the elimination of want or suffering by dealing with its causes. A product of the Enlightenment, in the late 19th century philanthropy drew on the emerging social sciences to take on its modern form. For these sciences posited an “objectivation of the social”: rather than holding individuals alone responsible for their plight, for their defects of character or behaviour, they ascribed these to their living conditions, which had to be investigated and appropriately improved. [16] The philanthropists sought to respond with scientifically supported rationality to the challenge to industrial society represented by “the social question” with its threat of conflict. [17] Thanks to the new instruments of knowledge, rational solutions could be found to pressing social problems. Inquiries, reports and statistics would provide the facts and the data. From all this emerged knowledges that circulated through transnational networks and were compared, contrasted and coordinated at international congresses. [18] This knowledge was supposed to legitimate proposals for reform and the social models they relied on. Philanthropy thus opened up “a new political space at the interface between private initiative and state power”. [19] It wasn’t just a matter of eliminating poverty (even if this remained the starting point and a central concern), but of protecting the weak, improving the quality of life, establishing new social relationships and cultural values. Interventions ranged from the promotion of occupational safety, the development of juvenile justice, the provision of training in housekeeping for girls, to the establishment of garden cities.

            Many of these initiatives were local in scope, often focused on the problems of the cities, in rapid expansion since the mid- or late 19th century. Locally active philanthropists were however well networked trans- and internationally. As can be seen from the many handbooks, directories and journals devoted philanthropy, there was a lively exchange of knowledge both within and between countries. [20] As Thomas David and Ludovic Tournès observe, networking was also a material necessity, in order to pool relatively meagre resources in the face of far better endowed governmental, military or other institutional actors. [21] A differentiated history of philanthropy must therefore take account of the discursive and practical interactions between different levels of action, between local, national and inter- and transnational. It is a matter – to borrow a concept from engineering and mathematics – of scaling the levels of analysis, of integrating what Jacques Revel called the jeux d’échelle. [22] Consideration of linkages between the different levels doesn’t just reveal processes of knowledge transfer and reception: it also makes it possible to write a transnational comparative history of welfare ‘from below’, taking into account the great local and regional diversity in the development of social security and situating it in the national and international context. [23] In this perspective, the courses of action adopted by those concerned with poverty are as significant as the solutions to the “social question” canvassed internationally. As well as the spatiality of philanthropists’ action, perception and interrelation, the concrete socio-spatial politics of inclusion/exclusion of the poor is also important. National borders, territorial planning, urban social topography and the choice of location where help and support were offered to those in need all served as instruments of socio-political regulation. [24]

            A number of studies have shown that philanthropists themselves gained advantages from their activities. [25] Often belonging to groups in some sense marginalized (such as nouveaux riches seeking integration into local elites, adherents of revivalist movements ostracized by more conventional religious circles, members of old-established elites deprived of something of their power by increasing democratization, and upper-class women generally, still for the most part excluded from the public realm), they expected their public engagement to bring social recognition, the dissemination of their own cultural values (hence the universalisation of particular interests [26] ) and not least, access to political power.

            Their interest in issues of governance necessarily brought philanthropic ventures into contact with the state authorities, who had their own agenda to pursue, even if this amounted to no more than liberal non-intervention in the social field. It also led, however, to confrontation with sectors of the labour movement whose increasing radicalism since the turn of the century led them to press for state social insurance in place of mutual aid. While philanthropists’ efforts might be aimed not at the symptoms but at the roots of social ills, they were nonetheless at first hostile to the recognition and generalisation of the principle of social rights. (They later compromised in this respect, contributing their expertise to liberal variants of planning. [27] ) Despite the scientific legitimation strategies adopted, moralizing judgments retained their hold in certain sectors of activity, especially as denominationally-affiliated collective actors and individual religious office-holders continued to play an important role. [28] Philanthropists sought to support self-help, not provide social security unlinked to personal responsibility, and their practice was for the most part not free of pedagogical or indeed frankly disciplinary intentions.

            As is shown by a number of the contributions to the present volume, the late 19th century can be seen as a key period for the establishment of social safety nets and the collaboration of state and private actors. The “social question” mobilized actors of different political stripes and socio-political locations. They shared the conviction that new approaches had to be found, to better cushion the social risks that had emerged with industrialisation and growing population mobility. Irma Gadient’s contribution thus shows how at the turn of the 20th century the Société française philanthropique provided assistance to needy French who had immigrated to Geneva, and the support of that society proved crucial to many. Though prosperous towns and industrial districts depended on immigrant workers, there were no social safety nets for these “foreigners” should they fall into unemployment. Gadient reveals the close connections of the Société française philanthropique not only with other French and Swiss philanthropic societies but also with the French consulate and Swiss cantonal welfare administrations, and discusses the role of the organisation in the nation-building process.

            The “foreigners” (Fremde or étrangers) were not just from abroad. The term was often applied to in-migrants of the same nationality. As Sonja Matter shows in her contribution, Swiss poor relief maintained noticeably longer than in other countries of Europe the distinction between those having local citizenship and others from elsewhere in the country. Philanthropic societies thus acquired a key role in negotiating with communes of origin, relatives or employer welfare funds to provide assistance to persons in need outside the poorhouses of their home district. Matter shows how in the early 20th century ideas for a scientifically-based system of provision for the poor were developed at national and international congresses, informing the collaboration of state and private actors, and how these principles were implemented in practice at the local level.

            The importance of international congresses in the development of approaches to social problems is also highlighted in Chris Leonards’ contribution. Between 1880 and 1920, some 1,500 international congresses dealing with matters of philanthropy or social welfare were held in Europe. Taking the International Penitentiary Congresses as an example, Leonards discusses to what extent state and philanthropic actors competed with each other in the elaboration of penal reform. The quantitative analyses indicate a large overlap between the two groups and show how ideas from civil society were eventually incorporated into the design of penal institutions.

            Non-state actors stand at the focus of another contribution concerned with the period of social unrest at the end of the 19th century. Jürgen Schallmann, however, adopts a local perspective in focussing on the mixed economy of welfare in the city of Göttingen. He shows how benevolent societies, poor relief administrators, parishes and university all collaborated in a city whose population increased fivefold between 1870 and 1914. The micro-historical perspective helps illuminate the importance of individual philanthropic actors and reveals the connections and conflicts between the different actor groups which in their different ways contributed to developing new modes of welfare provision for the poor.

            A similar approach is adopted by Michael Werner, whose article deals with the first half of the 20th century, a period in which state social security systems were successively established in all the countries, requiring a renegotiation of the relationship between philanthropic actors and the state in its new persona. Werner too focuses on the local level, but in comparative context. Taking the examples of German cities such as Hamburg, Leipzig and Dresden, he shows the changing roles played by benevolent institutions in local (city) welfare systems from 19871 to the end of the Second World War. In doing this he brings necessary qualifications to the well-established narrative of the decline of the benevolent institutions during this period. Local welfare administrations, says Werner, did not simply displace these bodies, but entered varying relationships of functional interdependence with them, depending on local need, the availability of resources, and dominant socio-political ideas.

            That social welfare systems are not zero-sum games in the sense of having only a fixed number of tasks to be allocated to the various actors is also shown by Matthias Ruoss, who looks at the role played by the charitable foundation Stiftung Für das Alter in the developing Swiss welfare state. The private benevolence of the foundation and the different forms of state social security that have been instituted since the 1920s are not mutually exclusive. Both actors are rather functionally and politically interdependent welfare producers whose interaction strongly contributes to the density and dynamics of social welfare provision, giving a distinctive national cast to the Swiss system of provision for the elderly.

            In another comparative contribution, Sarah Haßdenteufel considers the distinctive developments and constellations of welfare-policy actors in France and the Federal Republic of Germany, examining the behaviour of different charitable welfare organisations during the periods of consolidation and reform of the welfare state. Looking at the media coverage of poverty in the 1980s, she shows how welfare charities in both countries found a new field of action and influence as experts in “the new poverty”, yet as such played distinctively different roles in relation to the state. While France’s ATD Quart Monde was able to establish itself as a trusted advisor to political decision-makers, the German Caritas used its expertise to criticize state social policy, taking its distance from the government.

            In the last of the contributions, Axelle Brodiez too considers the French welfare system, but looking back again to the late 19th century. Reviewing the relevant research literature, she concludes that the relationship between public and private social welfare provision has on the whole been one of cooperation rather than competition. More detailed consideration however reveals a certain pattern: it was socio-economic disruption that prompted the action of philanthropic organisations, generally in the absence of state intervention; once public welfare provision was established, however, philanthropy often shifted its field of activity, focused on the development of new welfare strategies, or sought to collaborate with state authorities.

            The relationship, then, between voluntary benevolence and state social security is not at all an either-or. Yet, as Sonya Michel argues in her afterword, “private’ and “public” prove highly productive as heuristic categories applied to the analysis of a mixed economy of welfare. It becomes clear, however, not only that the meaning of the terms has changed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, but that the relationship between philanthropy and the state, between voluntary benevolence and state social security, has to be thought of as a continuum characterised by geographical and historical variation along a scale. As the contributions gathered here demonstrate, a binary logic fails to grasp the complexity of national welfare arrangements, which do indeed rely on a mixed economy of welfare.

Sonja Matter, Matthias Ruoss, Brigitte Studer – Bern
(translated from German by Dafydd Rees Roberts)



[1] Our thanks go to Ismael Albertin and Anina Eigenmann for their invaluable assistance.

[2] Peter Alcock, “Voluntary Action, New Labour and the Third Sector”, in Matthew Hilton and James McKay, eds, The Ages of Voluntarism: How We Got to the Big Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp.158-179; for Switzerland see Bernd Helmig, Hans Lichtsteiner and Markus Gmür, eds, Der Dritte Sektor der Schweiz (Bern: Haupt Verlag, 2010).

[3] Michel Dreyfus, Se protéger, être protégé. Une histoire des Assurances sociales en France (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006); Kees van Kersbergen and Philip Manow, eds, Religion, Class Coalitions, and Welfare States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Brigitte Studer, “Ökonomien der sozialen Sicherheit”, in Patrick Halbeisen, Margrit Müller and Béatrice Veyrassat, eds, Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Schweiz im 20. Jahrhundert (Zürich: Schwabe, 2012), pp. 923-974.

[4] Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).

[5] Michael B. Katz and Christoph Sachsse, eds, The Mixed Economy of Social Welfare: Public/Private Relations in England, Germany and the United States, the 1870’s to the 1930’s (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1996); Martin Powell, ed., Understanding the Mixed Economy of Welfare (Bristol: Policy Press, 2007).

[6] Adalbert Evers and Thomas Olk, eds, Wohlfahrtspluralismus. Vom Wohlfahrtsstaat zur Wohlfahrtsgesellschaft (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1996).

[7] Peter Baldwin, The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases of the European Welfare State, 1875-1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Jacob C. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State: The Battle Over Public and Private Social Benefits in the USA (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jennifer Klein, For All These Rights: Business, Labor and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Matthieu Leimgruber, Solidarity without the State? Business and the Shaping of the Swiss Welfare State, 1890-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Isabela Mares, The Politics of Social Risk: Business and Welfare State Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[8] Pat Thane, “The ‘Big Society’ and the ‘Big State’: Creative Tension or Crowding Out?”, the Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture 2011, in Twentieth Century British History 23:3 (2012), pp. 408-429, here p. 409.

[9] Margaret Tennant, “Governments and Voluntary Sector Welfare: Historians’ Perspectives”, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 17 (2001), pp. 147-160.

[10] Eva Keller, “Zwischen Strafvollzug und Fürsorge. Die sankt-gallische Schutzaufsicht im 19. Jahrhundert”, Traverse. Zeitschrift für Geschichte (2014/1), pp. 88-97.

[11] Jane Lewis, “The Boundary Between Voluntary and Statutory Social Service in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries”, The Historical Journal 39:1 (1996), pp. 155-177.

[12] Roderick Findlayson, “A Moving Frontier: Voluntarism and the State in British Welfare”, Twentieth Century British History 1:2 (1990), pp. 183-206.

[13] José Harris, William Beveridge: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), and “Voluntarism, the State and Public-Private Partnerships in Beveridge’s Social Thought”, in Melanie Oppenheimer and Nicolas Deakin, eds, Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 9-20.

[14] Françoise Battagliola, “Les réseaux de parenté et la constitution de l’univers féminin de la réforme sociale, fin XIXe-début XXe siècle”, Annales de démographie historique 112 (2006), pp. 77-104; Yolande Cohen, Femmes philanthropes: Catholiques, protestantes et juives dans les organisations caritatives au Québec (Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2010); Kathleen D. McCarthy, Women, Philanthropy, and Civil Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).

[15] For semantic variation across countries see Klaus Weber, “‘Wohlfahrt’, ‘Philanthropie’ und ‘Caritas’: Deutschland, Frankreich und Großbritannien im begriffsgeschichtlichen Vergleich”, in Rainer Liedtke and Klaus Weber, eds, Religion und Philanthropie in den europäischen Zivilgesellschaften. Entwicklungen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2009), pp. 19-37.

[16] Christian Topalov, ed., Laboratoires du nouveau siècle. La nébuleuse réformatrice et ses réseaux en France 1880-1914 (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS, 1999), p. 42.

[17] Though this did not necessarily lead to the outright abandonment of normative or disciplinary practices.

[18] Chris Leonards and Nico Randeraad, “Building a Transnational Network in the 19th Century: Social Reform in a European Perspective”, in Davide Rodogno, Bernhard Struck and Jakob Vogel, eds, Shaping the Transnational Sphere: Experts, Networks, and Issues from the 1840s to the 1930s (Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2014), pp. 111-130; Didier Renard, “Assistance et bienfaisance. Le milieu des Congrès d’assistance, 1889-1911”, in Topalov, Laboratoires, pp. 187-217.

[19] Thomas David, Nicolas Guilhot, Malik Mazbouri and Janick Marina Schaufelbuehl, “Philanthropie und Macht, 19. und 20. Jahrhundert”, Traverse. Zeitschrift für Geschichte (2006/1), pp. 7-17, here p. 11.

[20] Stéphane Baciocchi et al., “Les mondes de la charité se décrivent eux-mêmes”, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 61:3 (2014), pp. 28-66.

[21] Thomas David and Ludovic Tournès, “Introduction. Les philanthropies: un objet d’histoire transnationale”, in David and Tournès, eds, Monde(s). Histoire, espace, relations 6 (2014), pp. 7-22, here p. 13.

[22] Jacques Revel, ed., Jeux d’échelles. La micro-analyse à l’expérience (Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil, 1996).

[23] Francis G. Castles et al., “Introduction”, in Castles, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 1-15 here p. 4 ff. For Switzerland see Martin Lengwiler, “Die bürgerlichen Wurzeln des Sozialstaats”, Schweizer Monatshefte: Zeitschrift für Politik, Wirtschaft, Kultur 88 (2008), pp. 28-30; Matthieu Leimgruber and Martin Lengwiler, “Transformationen des Sozialstaats im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Die Schweiz im internationalen Vergleich”, in Leimgruber and Lengwiler, eds, Umbruch an der „inneren Front“. Krieg und Sozialpolitik in der Schweiz 1938-1948 (Zürich: Chronos Verlag, 2009), pp. 9-45, here pp. 23-32.

[24] Andreas Gestrich, Steven King and Lutz Raphael, “The Experience of Being Poor in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Europe”, in Gestrich, King and Raphael, eds, Being Poor in Modern Europe: Historical Perspectives 1800-1940 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006), pp. 17-40; Lutz Raphael, “Grenzen von Inklusion und Exklusion. Sozialräumliche Regulierung von Fremdheit und Armut im Europa der Neuzeit (Forum)”, Journal of Modern European History 11:2 (2013), pp. 147-167.

[25] Thomas Adam, ed., Philanthropy, Patronage and Civil Society: Experiences from Germany, Great Britain and North America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), and “Buying Respectability: Philanthropy and Cultural Dominance in 19th Century Boston”, Traverse. Zeitschrift für Geschichte (2006/1), pp. 29-46; Thomas Adam, Simone Lässig and Gabriele Lingelbach, eds, Stifter, Spender und Mäzene. USA und Deutschland im historischen Vergleich (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009); Sylvelin Wissmann, “Wohltätig für Wohltäter. Vom doppelten Nutzen der Philanthropie an Bremer Beispielen des 19. Jahrhunderts”, Traverse. Zeitschrift für Geschichte (2006/1), pp. 47-61.

[26] David et al., “Philanthropie”, p. 11.

[27] Particularly well documented are the activities of the big American foundations. See among others Ludovic Tournès, ed., L’argent de l’influence. Les fondations américaines et leurs réseaux européens (Paris: Editions Autrement, 2010); Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[28] Rainer Liedtke and Klaus Weber, eds, Religion, Wohlfahrt und Philanthropie in den europäischen Zivilgesellschaften, 1800-2000 (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2008); Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).