Abstract: Fashions in Philanthropy, or International Trends as a Challenge for Charities' Managers in the Early National United States

Amanda Moniz


In the early national United States, fashions exerted a powerful force on activists' approaches to building urban charitable infrastructures. While international currents in social welfare practices were stimulating, they could draw the attention of charities' managers away from the local arena where ventures thrived or floundered. Through a comparison of humane societies (anti-drowning groups) in Philadelphia and Massachusetts, this paper explores how managers responded to the ongoing challenge that trends presented to local undertakings. In the case of the Philadelphia Humane Society (established in 1780), a focus on faraway peers and their innovations prevented the managers from doing the hard work of rooting a new charity in its community. By contrast, the managers of the Massachusetts Humane Society (established in 1786) exploited long-distance connections purposively and, in doing so, both enhanced their local undertaking and strengthened the transatlantic humane society movement. A key trait, then, of capable managers was that they made adept decisions about emulating, or ignoring, peers. When they made poor decisions, activists allocated time and money to undertakings that did not meet local social conditions. Paradoxically, one of the engines of the growing complexity of the American philanthropic landscape was that trends sometimes trumped needs.