Published by EH.Net (March 2020)

Sarah Roddy, Julie-Marie Strange and Bertrand Taithe, The Charity Market and Humanitarianism in Britain, 1870-1912. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. ix + 224 pp. £85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-350-05798-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by George Campbell Gosling, Department of History, University of Wolverhampton.

The central concern of this book is the extent to which late-Victorian and Edwardian charities adopted business practices. As such, it is fitting that theories and concepts borrowed from business and marketing studies feature throughout, whether in developing “brand identity,” the “franchising” of fundraising efforts or early forms of “social enterprise” and “ethical consumerism.” The authors consistently and convincingly present a view of voluntary organizations not only keeping up with developments in the business world, but in some cases even being ahead of the game.

The opening chapter uses the Salvation Army, Barnardo’s and Manchester’s Wood Street Mission as case studies to demonstrate the emergence of what is termed “charity enterprise” in the late-nineteenth century. All three were characterized by the dominant role of the founder, “entrepreneurs” who were personally and visibly involved in fundraising campaigns that reflected the innovative practices of commercial advertising and marketing that were taking shape at the time (p. 11). Creativity and sensationalism in the use of the press, leaflets and posters, celebrity and “speakers with depraved pasts” were matched by what was essentially Victorian crowdfunding through church collections, chain letters and collection boxes that increased “the social depth of the donor market” (p. 19). The second chapter shows how this innovation was applied to developing appealing ways of “consuming charity,” with Salvationists buying commemorative photographs or ethically-produced safety matches as a form of “purchase-triggered donations” (p. 44). Meanwhile, entertainment and sporting activities formed a sort of fundraising “experience economy” where feats of muscular Christianity served as a precursors of today’s charity marathons (pp. 53-54).

The third chapter presents the case for charities being ahead of their commercial counterparts when it came to the development of what we would today call their “brand personalities” (p. 66). This task was even more important to charities than businesses as “values had to be integrally inscribed into their brands from the outset” (p. 80). Policing “charity fraud” was both a means of brand protection through self-regulation and, the fourth chapter tells us, of asserting and ensuring a “virtuous market” (pp. 81-82). In practice this meant adhering to the Charity Organisation Society’s expectations for active committee oversight, audited and published accounts and low administration costs while avoiding duplication of other charities’ work. By introducing “normative, capitalistic approaches to what had often been considered a premodern form of exchange” (p. 96), the late-Victorian voluntary sector “operated in many significant respects as a market” (p. 81).

The final two chapters trace these developments in the field of international humanitarian aid. While the great and the good may have raised funds in a very traditional way for the Stafford House Committee, they also embraced change in terms of transparency, commercial networks and collaboration with other humanitarian organizations, for example during the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. All of which was outdone by the more explicitly professional and business-minded and hugely successful “franchise fundraising” of the Mansion House appeals discussed in the last chapter (p. 122). Here provincial lord mayors served as sub-agents to the Lord Mayor of London, fundraising amongst their local middle classes and elites for major national and international disaster relief collections in a similar fashion to local agents who sold Singer sewing machines.

It was, we are told, the demands of demonstrating legitimate charity management to donors and the wider public that effectively priced the smaller, more ad hoc charities out of the domestic and international markets they had dominated in the early-nineteenth century. This, along with an increasingly competitive charity market, is what drove the adoption of modern, professional and business-like practices already evident by the end of the Victorian period. Some readers may find this argument jarring, with the familiar characteristics of amateurism and altruism largely absent. However, the case is well made and the corrective much needed. Historians are inevitably skeptical of the claims of newness frequently made by advocates of the “new philanthropy” and “philanthrocapitalism,” but in charting the parallel and interwoven developments of business and charitable fundraising this book is an important substantive intervention.

The central thesis is that the world of British philanthropy and humanitarianism should, by the end of the nineteenth century, be clearly understood as a “charity market.” The sheer number and variety of illustrative examples drawn upon in this book makes for a convincing argument. The ways charities framed and conducted interactions with their (potential) donors, as well as with each other, is successfully shown to have operated according to a whole host of what are typically thought of as commercial practices and business principles. Future scholarship will need to engage, even if critically, with the notion that modern British philanthropy and business did not come into being as fundamentally different beasts.

Where the authors expertly identify emergent features of commercial practice in the voluntary field, it is noticeable there is no discussion of how “charity” might be defined until page 87, when the focus is on how contemporary critics identified illegitimate charities. Despite this, much of the discussion revolves around whether commercial practices undermined claims of fundraisers to be engaged in real or authentic charity. This oppositional frame is not one necessarily found in sociological work on the social meanings associated with money in modern life. We might wonder whether the view of business-savvy or even hard-nosed charity entrepreneurs is the result of focusing on fundraising, rather than the adoption of business-like practices in their social housing or retail operations which deliberately imitated commercial practices but often ran on a non-profit basis, deeply imbued with social and moral mindsets.

Regardless, the very fact that fundraising existed as such a fully-developed and commercialized sphere of voluntary activity at this time is a point worth making. The authors have done a fine job here of bringing together contemporary voluntary and business concerns with historical evidence, as well as the domestic and imperial histories. It will undoubtedly quickly become essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the development not only of modern philanthropy and humanitarianism but also modern business in Britain.

George Gosling is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of Payment and Philanthropy in British Healthcare, 1918-48 (Manchester University Press, 2017) and is currently working on the British history of charity retail.

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