What Makes Charity Work

What Makes Charity Work: A Century of Public and Private Philanthropy
edited by Myron Magnet

Charity history and theory from a conservative perspective

This book is a thought-provoking and controversial compilation of essays from New York’s City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. The essays chronicle various public and private charity initiatives over the past century, sometimes told by a family member, often by a public policy analyst, sociologist, or essayist.

The essays share common themes of hard work, achievement, faith-based values supported by cultural norms, and the superior achievement of private rather than public charity as a means to lift people from poverty to self-reliance and citizenship.

The first essay tells the story of the first Irish Archbishop of New York and his lifelong (and largely successful) efforts to help his fellow Irishmen succeed in early to mid-19th century New York. Religious and ethnic prejudice was the heritage as well as the life for the Irish immigrant, and John Hughes had endured it firsthand. He knew that the path to respectability and citizenship was through hard work, faith-based education, and a strong code of conduct — societal norms — sometimes called “peer pressure” today. “How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul” is a scathing attack on Catholic Charities and other faith-based nonprofits that have divorced their religious beliefs from their philanthropy, with the result that their ministry AND their charitable outcomes for the people they mean to help have both suffered. The essay recognizes the “Charitable Choice” initiative of the U.S. government as, at best, a two-edged sword for faith-based charities. If your charity is founded with religious beliefs and tenets of your mission and vision and values, how do you define your services as “secular” in order to accept federal funds without sacrificing part of your rationale for existence? In the “Catholic Charities” essay, the author explains that the organization had already “lost its way” before Charitable Choice, all but abandoning the concept of private philanthropy and direct service in favor of lobbying for government funds and advocating for “social and political change.”

These essays are a valuable component of any inquiry into the meaning and effects of philanthropy. They present what has come to be a minority view among nonprofit sector professionals, but an increasingly popular one among legislators and donors. Charitable Choice in the US has raised central questions about philanthropy and charity that are being actively investigated in Australia, Canada, and the UK to varying degrees. Especially interesting is the increasing tension between charities and governments, with charities resisting the perceived pressure from governments to “pick up the slack” for reductions in government expense on welfare programs while at the same time receiving an increasing share of their budgets from government appropriations and grant-funded programs.

There are twelve essays, along with notes and an index. The writing style is intellectual without being jargon-laden. The essays can easily be read independently, though many share common underlying themes.

Table of Contents


How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish
Once We Knew How to Rescue Poor Kids
How the Agency Saved My Father
Philanthropy that Worked
Why the Boy Scouts Work
How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul
Behind the Hundred Neediest Cases
The Billions of Dollars that Made Things Worse
What Good is Pro Bono?
How Businessmen Shouldn’t Help the Schools
Who Says the Homeless Should Work?
At Last, A Jobs Program that Works
A Note on Contributors