Amy Schiller, "The Price of Humanity: How Philanthropy Went Wrong—And How to Fix It" (Melville House, 2023)


Amy Schiller, who spent a number of years working in both political and major gift fundraising, has a new book detailing some of the fundamental problems currently afflicting American philanthropy and how to correct some of these problems. Schiller, a political theorist currently at Dartmouth College’s Society of Fellows, brings two important perspectives to her research in The Price of Humanity: How Philanthropy Went Wrong—And How to Fix It (Melville House, 2023)—combining her experience in the philanthropic world with her training and expertise in political theory, especially democratic theory. The Price of Humanity also provides the reader with a vital history of philanthropy and giving, especially in the West, and how thinking about the role of supporting others as part of the common good has shifted over the course of more than two millennia. Schiller makes an important point about how St. Augustine, in his teachings on donations and giving, shifted the framing and understanding of giving from a community-based common good to a global approach to donating, tying the act of giving to individual salvation. This approach not only highlighted suffering and need and stratified those who give from those who are in need, but it also disconnected the philanthropic experience from the immediate community while objectifying those who are in poverty or generally in need.

The Price of Humanity doesn’t dwell in the past but provides this important lens that continues to apply to our contemporary thinking about giving. This more disconnected approach is also overlaid, in our current environment, with the demand that non-profits and philanthropies product quantifiable goods: how many cases of malaria have been eradicated, how much food has been provided to those experiencing scarcity, how are the dollars donated spent and by whom and in what ways? Thus, in so many ways, philanthropic organizations have to report out their successes in the same ways that private corporations need to detail their fiscal health to their boards of directors and shareholders. All of these approaches tend to disconnect the act of giving from the world in which we live, according to Schiller, and this disconnection makes the reason for giving much more attenuated, distancing us from each other, our communities, and the real role of the common good. Instead of linking individuals together in our shared love for one another and humanity as a whole—which is actually what the word philanthropy means in the original Greek—we live in a philanthropic world that separates and isolates. The Price of Humanity spotlights different approaches to giving, with discussions of the Gates Foundation, Effective Altruism, Robber Barons and the Gilded Age, and other forms of the business of giving. Schiller also focuses on modern examples of philanthropy as the common good, which brings it into the realm of democratic theory, as a means to provide the flourishing of humanity, not merely fulfilling the desperate needs of individuals. This is a fascinating and valuable interrogation of the idea of giving to others, and how we need to reconsider our thinking about the act of giving itself and the role that this act plays in our community and in our democracy.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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