This forum takes two facts as starting points. First: we live in an age of giving. In the United States, charitable giving grows almost every year. In the twenty years between 1998 and 2018, total giving to US charitable institutions and causes rose from $265.5 billion to approximately $427.71 billion. Donations by individuals accounted for approximately 68 percent of total giving in 2018. Yet a second fact qualifies the first: our era of giving is also an era of extraordinary wealth and income inequality. Although a majority of American households continue to give to charitable causes, the proportion of households that give has been falling. Around the world, total giving increasingly has comprised charitable and philanthropic contributions made by wealthy individuals and corporations.

With these two facts in mind, contributors to this forum consider why, when, and where certain understandings of charity and philanthropy have proven persuasive and powerful. In our current “gilded age” and in previous eras of growing inequality, why have charitable donations and philanthropic initiatives become prominent methods of effecting individual or social transformation? And how have religious and secular “gospels” animated particular visions of transformation? By exploring such varied topics as Malaysian banking workshops, donations to prominent American universities, and social entrepreneurship projects, contributors respond to these questions.

The contributions to this forum simultaneously complement and advance the ongoing critical reassessment of contemporary philanthropy. Rob Reich’s Just Giving (2018) and Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All (2018) provide just two recent examples. Distinguishing between general charitable giving and what is often described as “private” or “organized” philanthropy, both Reich and Giridharadas deem contemporary philanthropy largely at odds with democratic priorities. This tradition of philanthropy traces its roots to the end of the nineteenth century, when industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller not only amassed unprecedented fortunes through the production of commodities such as steel and oil but also engineered new corporate forms to shelter their wealth and manage their giving. While new family foundations distributed large sums of money to charitable causes, their primary goal involved more than mere charitable giving to benevolent causes. These philanthropic corporations set out to do nothing less than transform the world and the social lives of its citizens. Foundation trustees and professional staff accordingly became powerful architects of the public good. They acquired social power that democracies ordinarily assign to elected officials.

Philanthropists such as Carnegie and Rockefeller made their ostensibly good intentions clear, but they predicated their benevolent ambitions and initiatives upon an array of presumptions about how society could and should function. In the essay that became known as “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889), for example, Carnegie proclaimed his desire to ensure that “the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship,” and he insisted that this class division could be harmonized through “the proper administration of wealth.” With his next breath, however, Carnegie admitted that he saw inequality as an unavoidable condition of progress. Describing the unmistakable “contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer” as a symptom of an ongoing economic revolution that would continue to benefit some more than others, Carnegie cautioned that “it is a waste of time to criticize the inevitable” and warned against attacking capitalism, which he described as “the foundation upon which civilization itself rests.” In his view, the best response to economic inequality was to appoint “wise” trustees as custodians of surplus wealth. Wisdom would allow those trustees to avoid giving money to the “unworthy,” focusing instead on aiding “those who will help themselves.”

Although today’s most prominent philanthropists are not as explicitly patronizing as Carnegie, their understandings of giving similarly braid seemingly good intentions together with questionable presumptions. Few philanthropic initiatives exemplify this phenomenon better than the Giving Pledge, which the billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett began organizing in 2009. Dedicated to addressing “society’s most pressing problems,” the initiative asks signatories “to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.” Some of the richest people in the world have committed (morally, not legally) to the pledge, including MacKenzie Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Indian tech magnate Azim Premji. According to one estimate, the pledge’s 204 signatories (as of May 2019) have donated or committed to donate more than $500 billion. For the privilege of adding your own wealth to those billions, you must meet only one qualification: as the website unapologetically explains, “The Giving Pledge is specifically focused on billionaires or those who would be billionaires if not for their giving.” While this membership restriction may be intended simply to maximize the public profile of prominent signatories’ commitments, the restriction also makes an implicit claim about the relationship between wealth, giving, and social change. The restriction suggests that only wealthy individuals and their riches can truly “take important risks,” partner with governments, or “scale up innovations for maximum impact.”

Beyond its wealth requirement, the Giving Pledge does not ask signatories to support any particular causes or priorities so long as they are recognized as charitable. Signatories are encouraged to “find their own unique ways to give that inspire them personally and benefit society.” According to one report, Warren Buffett even insisted on removing “give to inequities” from an early draft of the Giving Pledge’s mission statement, as it seemed “to preach to others” in a way he found distasteful.

Buffett’s apprehension over the mere mention of inequity can be seen as a reinterpretation of Carnegie’s confidence in the wisdom of the wealthy and their trustees. But there are also differences between Buffet’s gospel of wealth and Carnegie’s. When Carnegie offered his call-to-philanthropic-arms, for example, he drew significant censure from labor leaders, religious leaders, and prominent politicians who condemned the scale of his wealth, the means of its creation, and the arbitrary way that philanthropists determined which social institutions and causes deserved investment. By contrast, the Giving Pledge and the outsized wealth of its signatories has received more acclaim than condemnation. That acclaim in turn has enhanced the social and political authority that billionaire philanthropists have wielded around the world, despite recurrent evidence of insufficient wisdom. Why have contemporary philanthropists and philanthropy received comparably modest opposition?

One answer to this question involves the unalloyed good that many philanthropic initiatives and philanthropists have effected through their wealth. But another response involves the transformation of voluntary charitable giving into a commonsensical method of performing devotion to a cause. This charitable common sense has allowed billionaire philanthropists to seem like extreme versions of our ideal charitable selves.

A potential genealogy of this ideal features a wide array of religious, legal, and economic developments. In the United States, religious developments include the invention of modern tithing, which taught Protestants at the end of the nineteenth century to see donations to their churches as a biblical mandate. Legal developments include tax policies that have subsidized individual contributions to charities through tax deductions. These policies have encouraged individual giving by essentially allowing donors to keep a portion of the money they ostensibly gave. (Due in part to this fact, billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates actually saw their personal wealth grow over the Giving Pledge’s first ten years.) Among influential economic developments, the rise of financial capitalism and neoliberal economic policies since the 1970s have had the effect of transforming public institutions into what the social theorist Nancy Fraser describes as “private goods for individual investment or consumption.” In a related essay for this forum, Katharyne Mitchell explores key distinctions between liberal and neoliberal approaches to philanthropy, showing how market systems have undermined forms of social welfare by prioritizing individual giving and entrepreneurship.

While the Giving Pledge affords one opportunity to examine understandings of giving and social change, this forum’s invited contributors offer additional opportunities by examining practices of giving around the world. Both Esra Tunc and Daromir Rudnyckyj, for example, present Islamic moral reasoning and traditions of charity as resources for implementing new methods of generating or redistributing wealth. Tunc reveals how Muslim entrepreneurs in North America have reinterpreted Islamic giving practices in order to solicit donations through new media technologies. Rudnyckyj shows how Islamic finance experts in Malaysia simultaneously have drawn on traditions of Islamic philanthropy while also disavowing an association between their financial instruments and the notion of “charity,” which undermines their emphasis on Islamic banking’s profitability. Focusing on US-based religious humanitarianism around the world, David King responds to critics of organized philanthropy by showing how shifting religious and spiritual values are transforming the relationship between philanthropy and faith. Meanwhile, Chad Seales asks why it often seems difficult to imagine alternatives to prevailing systems of funding and philanthropy—despite and even due to our struggle to recognize our own commitments to particular economic presumptions and practices.

Several other contributors assess less ambivalent attachments to concepts of charity and practices of giving. Studying communities of Parsis in India, Leilah Vevaina explains how her interlocutors practice charitable giving in order to develop the resources they need to survive as an ethnoreligious minority. Lucia Hulsether examines the notions of obligation, rehabilitation, and atonement that saturate philanthropic giving in the United States. Advocating a “justice-oriented philanthropy,” Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty interrogates the concepts of love associated with efforts to confront inequalities through commitment to collaborative and inclusive organizing.

When was the last time someone asked you for money? As you decided whether to give, what did you think or feel or do? Of course, answers to these questions depend on many factors, including the particular request, your own ability to meet it, and your state of mind when asked. Yet as the contributions to this forum reveal, large and small charitable practices and philanthropic initiatives also depend on rationales we often take for granted, and which the study of religion brings into view. To understand why, when, and where certain responses to social inequality have proven persuasive and influential, we must identify and account for the varied gospels of giving that have achieved preeminence in our communities and our world.