The modern nonprofit model began with that baron of the Gilded Age Andrew Carnegie’s desire to change capitalism in order to “save it”—after accumulating vast amounts of personal wealth and witnessing labor strikes and violence toward “captains of industry” and their businesses. Carnegie believed inequality was an inevitable result of industrial progress but that traditional charity would not close the gap because indiscriminate handouts would only encourage lazy, drunk, and unworthy people to persist in their ways. Then, as now, the “undeserving poor” were assumed to be all people who are able-bodied yet unemployed: people who seemingly did not want to work or made poor choices that prohibit them from doing so. Rather than use his immense personal wealth to alleviate suffering, Carnegie urged his fellow millionaires to benefit the community by “[placing] within its reach the ladders on which the aspiring can rise,” inventing the notion of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps without acknowledging that some people do not even have boots.
Heralded by many as the father of modern philanthropy, Carnegie’s ideals actually further exacerbated the gap between equality of condition and equality of opportunity. The foundations begun by Carnegie and his contemporaries were to be used as vehicles for the “public good.” But that public good would no longer be defined by the public itself or won through direct action. According to Peter Dobkin Hall, it would instead be determined by elites, academic experts, professional bodies, businesses, and government entities; they studied conditions, generated and dispersed their findings to citizens with influence, and drummed up public awareness to bring social change—a model not very different from the one employed by nonprofits and their funders today.
Friendly reminder that the actual vehicles for public good and social change are supposed to be, a) the democratically accountable government, and b) small grassroots social organisations. Not giant multinationals established as tax dodges by billionaires.