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Benjamin Soskis and Philanthropic History

Benjamin Soskis and Philanthropic History

In the latest episode of our From Idea to Impact podcast, Arabella Senior Director Loren McArthur spoke to Benjamin Soskis, author, historian, and Senior Research Associate at Urban Institute. Their conversation covered how philanthropy can learn from the past and where we need to dream bigger. Here is some of what Ben shared:

  • “The more you learn about the past, the more you appreciate how distinct it is from the current moment. […] On the other hand, I think appreciating the past, understanding historical trends, and the processes by which social change has happened, can really give you a richness and humanistic appreciation of the work were all engaged in.”
  • “You can’t claim that something is new, if you don’t understand what has happened in the past. And understanding what’s new is crucial for anyone in the [social] sector.”
  • “There was a profound sense [during the Great Depression] that everybody was affected by this, and everyone could address it. That was incredibly profound for me at the beginning of the pandemic, and for many people; but it also defined the ways people thought about the Depression.”
  • “[The Depression is] also key because, fundamentally, what people learned is that as impressive as the outpouring [of giving] was, it wasn’t just enough. And there is a moment where we appreciated and celebrated the capacities of American generosity and held that they are entirely consistent with an appreciation of the inadequacies of private giving. And those two things can completely co-exist.”
  • “In a crisis, it helps if you had already been doing the work before the crisis. It is hard to scale up in the midst of a crisis. But foundations that were already thinking and planning, they can really take enormous roles once a crisis begins.”
  • “There are so many centers of power [within philanthropy] with often different political positioning on the spectrum. I think it allows for funders to engage movements across the spectrum; and I think we are seeing more of that. With that cautionary tale of how much philanthropy is supporting movements versus trying to control them.”
  • “It is really hard to be of service, when the streets are already crowded. The work that philanthropy must do has to come before that; it must be a work of supporting, a kind of patient community organizing, that sets the moment for when the crowds mobilize.”

To hear more about similarities and differences between the Great Depression and our current moment, and what that can teach us in the sector, listen to the full conversation between Ben and Loren here.

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