Book Dissection (Nonprofits and Philanthropy)

Posted with permission of Anne Guthrie

Gorsky, M. (1999). Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. Woodbride, London: Boydell & Brewer Inc.

Martin Gorsky explores the changing nature of the voluntary sector in nineteenth-century Bristol, particularly in the shift from endowed trusts to charity subscription as the preferred vehicle of philanthropy (Gorsky, pg. 18). Corresponding with this shift, the book is divided into two parts. The first part addresses the reasons behind the withdrawal of giving to endowed trusts and second focuses on the rise of actively participating through charities (Dunkley, 2001). Three major themes emerge from Gorsky’s thesis that state welfare and class conflict alone fail to explain this shift in voluntary action as pervious literature emphasizes (Gorsky, pg 6).

The first theme aims to show that the decline of endowments are best understood from an economic lens of contract failure with a focus on how politics and religion propelled society to seek a more satisfactory method of providing public goods (Gorsky, pg. 18). The second theme aims to explain the rise of charities due to diverse interest groups exhibiting preferences for a new way of giving with the dual role of expressing authority over the poor and forging a middle class identify (Gorsky, pg. 19). The third theme shows how the new voluntary sector guided public discourse, influencing increased investment in social goods by the state and the market such as education (Gorsky, pg. 228).

Gorsky first argues that the decline of endowments resulted from a contract failure–a break in trust with how money was handled for the public good–because the topic of endowments was used to advance political gain. The political entanglement shifted public attitudes towards endowments rather than the workings of endowments in and of themselves (Gorsky, pg. 63). For example, Hunt’s 1812 election platform attacked charity administration as corrupt to portray his solution to the self-interested ruling elite, an argument absorbed by the Liberals (Gorsky, pg. 66). The Bristol Mercury, which was Liberal media, made charity corruption central attacking the Tories within their editorials (Gorsky, pg. 69). Groksy also argues that the parish and government relationship cause conflicts of interest that eroded public trust (Gorsky, pg. 86). Work was rewarded with political status, not pay, vestries exercised favoritism in leasing property, and the churchmen gave gifts to recipients they knew as means of cultivating social cohesion (Gorsky, pg. 99). The vestry was simultaneously the “smallest arm of government” (Gorsky, pg. 88) as they compiled the census returns, assessed various social taxes and the poor rate (Gorsky, pg. 106). The charity was thus damaged by party politics and donors sought new alternatives to voluntary participation in subscription charities. Gorsky concludes, “an important component of the decline of endowed charity was, paradoxically, the public debate over its improvement” (Gorsky, pg. 85).

Next, Gorsky aims to explain the rise of open membership charities based on subscription where donors had a more active involvement in volunteerism. He argues that subscription based charities rose not necessarily out of the rejection of the endowments, but by individuals creating values and expressing themselves within a new middle class that was developed from earlier forms of local and civic traditions (Gorsky, pg. 113). He points out civic forms, such as gild mutualism and Quaker practices, that acted as the template for practices of benefits clubs, administration protocals, and combining moral relief with poor reform (Gorsky, pg. 116). The middle class used its leisure time to obtain social identity such as publishing a list of donors to confer status (Gorsky, pg. 126). Subscription was also used to make distinctions between the “haves” and “have-nots” as members were found to financially sound and prominent including the South Gloucestershire Friendly Society (Gorsky, pg. 128). However, examples such as the Samaritan Society and Prudent Man’s Friend Society as well as medical and educational organizations showcased value preferences in rehabilitation, respectable families, work-ethic, slavery and poor relief where membership was diverse, regardless of status and affiliation (Gorsky, pg. 146).

Finally, Gorksy argues that the shift in voluntary action guided public discourse on evaluating how to deliver social goods, not only through charity and the private level but at the state level. The passing of Forster’s Education Act was a shift in funding education through taxation. This view of education as a collective good was pioneered by charity and private schools (Gorsky, pg. 155). Volunteerism also complemented states efforts of reform and public policy including offering training and moral reform services to the offenders and disabled or starting homes for alcoholics (Gorsky, pg. 156). Volunteerism also caused caustic, self-interested motivations and paternalism, however, “whatever their narrow interests or affiliation, voluntary charities provided a site in which public opinion was formed and in which social policy might evolve” (Gorsky, pg. 161). Gorsky points to the limits of volunteerism (such as lack of funding, free rider problem, and fickleness the of subscribers as demonstrated by volunteer hospitals) to show that the state and the private sector work to compliment their separate failings (Gorsky, pg. 228).

Armed with primary sources and a more in-depth look at the role of politics, religion and value preferences, Gorksy uncovers a robust theory of the voluntary action shift through an economic perspective. Based on the examples and evidence provided, it appears that mere class relations and state-welfare do not fully explain the volunteer sector in Bristol in the nineteenth-century. However, at various points his contract failure and social value analysis draws the same conclusions as the pervious social structure and state welfare analysis. For instance both evaluations conclude that the voluntary sector was influenced by modernity (or urbanism, as Gorsky labels it) (Gorsky, pg. 122) and that class formation asserted group identify through volunteerism (or as Gorsky explains middle class distancing themselves from the have-nots) (Gorsky, pg 128).

This work brings an understanding of voluntary provision tied to contemporary economic theories of the nonprofit sector, thus bringing a fresh evaluation structure within the historical literature of philanthropy previous dominated by the gift theory approach and class conflict (Baigent, 2000 and Bosay, 2001). Gorsky has also contributed by further elevating the importance of nineteenth-century philanthropy through a more complex view of social provision (Dunkley, 2001) and explores facets of society besides the dominantly studied English poor law (Kidd, 2001). His analysis using contemporary economic or contract failure theories has invited comparison on how philanthropic action is explained today. It explores how these theories can explain not only the present voluntary sector, but voluntary action throughout the ages, providing an unique perspective on how voluntary action changes as society seeks meaning in the provision of public goods.


Baigent, E. (2000). Book Review: Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. The English Historical Review, 115(464), 1339. Retrieved from:

Borsay, A. (2001) Book Review: Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. Medical History, 45(2), 300-301. Retrieved from:

Dunkley, P. (2001). Book Review: Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 33(3), 490-491. Retrieved from:

Kidd, A. (2001) Book Review: Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. The Economic History Review, 54(2), 383. Retrieved from: