Abstract: The Commercialization of Charity: Progressive Era Debates about Philanthropic Foundations

Elizabeth Harmon


In the midst of Progressive Era market reforms that reshaped the way for-profit corporations, like Standard Oil, utilized trusts and combinations, corporate leaders attempted to use and describe the market as a powerful resource for social reform. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Andrew Carnegie, for example, used corporate profits to fuel philanthropic foundations with state and federal charters. They applied some of the most controversial organizational technologies used in their for-profit corporations to create charitable foundations. However, just as monopolies and trusts among for-profit corporations inspired policy debates, these nonprofit corporations, which proposed to use the corporate form for social good, inspired intense popular and regulatory responses. In this paper, I examine the relationship between social regimes of reform and the corporate form in the Progressive Era in order to consider what these historically contingent debates about welfare practices and policies might tell us about the formation of modern American philanthropic foundations and their influence on the greater nonprofit sector. In the midst of contemporary debates about neoliberalism, markets, and social policy today, I wish to suggest that one might find a longer history of social enterprise outside contemporary narratives of neoliberal corporatization and marketization in the nonprofit sector.