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Michael Liffman’s recommended summer reading list…

December 11th, 2018

It has been suggested to me that I post a list of books on philanthropy that our members might wish to read over the coming summer break. In responding to this idea I’m proposing to divert somewhat from the initial intent of this suggestion, reckoning that even the most committed of our members may not wish to spend January sitting on the beach relaxing with ‘A Semiotic Analysis of the Development of Philanthropy in Ulaanbaatar from 1957 to 1976 (Vol 2)’ (ok, I made that one up..) but might be looking forward to a novel or two.

Accordingly, I will offer just a few recommendations on books on how-to-do philanthropy, and the latest developments in the world of social investment and follow these with a slightly different list: works of fiction that tell stories about the twists and turns that often lead to, or arise from, giving, generosity and philanthropy, now and in times past. Hopefully these books, in their various ways, may offer some entertaining and provocative summer reading, while not being too unrelated to PA members’ day jobs.

First, members so inclined could do worse than delve into Philanthropy Australia’s ‘Better Giving’ portal, which contains such a wealth of material, and links to further resources, that I suspect many of you have not had time to do justice to it over the year but keep promising yourself to return to when you have time. Well, now might be that time...

For those who have been wanting a comprehensive and readable overview of key concepts and practices in the changing landscape of contemporary philanthropy I recommend 'The Business of Giving: The Theory and Practice of Philanthropy, Grantmaking and Social Investment'. Written by Peter Grant (could there be a more appropriate name for a writer on grant-making?) from the Cass Business School in London and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012, the book delivers exactly what its title promises.

In a recent post I referred to a new book by US academic Robert Reich, provocatively titled 'Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing and How it can do Better', published by Princeton Uni Press and available as an eBook. As with another work I mentioned in an earlier post, Michael Learner's 'A Gift Observed’ (available on Amazon), these works challenge us to reflect on the larger context of our work. (My Philanthropy Australia colleague, Krystian Seibert, also wishes to challenge us with his recommendation of 'Winners Take All', published by Random House, the subtitle of which indicates the argument it advances: 'the elite charade of changing the world'.)

For a more optimistic take (although not one that all readers are convinced by) on what Philanthropy can offer the world, Peter Singer is an easy, persuasive, and influential read, with 'The Life you can Save' and 'The Most Good you can Do'.

Of course, the classic novel celebrating the virtue of giving is - appropriately at this time of the year - Charles Dickens' timeless 'A Christmas Carol', first published in 1843. Hugely influential ever since, the work is a treasured parable in which Scrooge's conversion from miser to giver has remained one of the most popular and enduring renditions of the virtue of sharing.

Other novels explore the deeper complexities of being a giver. Whether these resonate in the experiences of Philanthropy Australia members or are simply means of telling a good story is another question on which I would invite comment. 

For a very readable contemporary local novel that has these questions at its core, we need go no further than Melbourne lawyer-turned-novelist John Tesarsch. In 'The Philanthropist' (published by Hardie Grant and readily available) he tells the story of a barrister for whom a commitment to philanthropy becomes one component of the way he deals with several issues he is facing in his life. While the philanthropic motivation it describes is not philanthropy at its best, the novel does remind us of the complex dynamics that shape behaviour, and perhaps can assist us to incorporate that understanding into our own dealings with people who give.

Better known is the creation of the remarkable, eccentric and startlingly powerful American writer, the late Kurt Vonnegut, of 'Slaughter House 5' fame. Vonnegut wrote 'God Bless You Mr Rosewater' in 1965 as another vehicle for his outrageous, satirical and deeply vexed ruminations about human nature and the future of our world. It tells the story of a humanitarian millionaire who, troubled by his wartime experience, tries to compensate by setting up a huge personal foundation. In a society that equates riches with merit and poverty with un-deservingness, however, his efforts cause people to doubt his sanity and to challenge his efforts.

Among the multitude of texts by management guru, the late Peter Drucker, is an unlikely novel (one of only two he wrote). 'The Temptation to do Good', while more an exploration of management than specifically about philanthropy, offers some sober insights on how kindness can be misunderstood in a bureaucratic setting.

(I acknowledge my friend and colleague, emeritus professor Les Lenkowsky, of the University of Indiana, for making me aware of the next novel I am listing.)  In 1894 an American writer, William Howells, wrote 'A Traveller from Altruria' describing the island of Altruria - from the word 'altruism' - in which 'everyone does his fair share of labour and receives his share of food, clothing, and shelter, which is neither more or less than another's'. A Utopian novel - probably a curiosity now - with both Christian and Marxist resonances.

And let's not forget our Philanthropy Australia junior members, who are also entitled to a good summer read - and a Christmas gift or two. I sought the advice of the wonderful Ann James at Books Illustrated, about books for children that explore the idea of kindness and community. 

For older children, 'Once' from the 'The Felix Series' (Penguin) is a bold and remarkably effective attempt by Australian Children's Laureate Morris Gleitzman to tell the story of a Jewish boy caught up in the Holocaust, and how he retains his capacity for optimism, resilience and generosity. Gleitzman explains his reason for telling such a grim story: 

'There is another side to human existence that is equally, perhaps more important, and the two sides shouldn’t be separated from each other. And what stories can do, and what I’ve always tried to do in my work, is to look honestly at the worst we humans are capable of, but also to have a part of each story where characters show the best that we are capable of, starting with the love and friendship that, if we’re lucky, is at the centre of most of our lives, through to responsibility, generosity and compassion.’

Meanwhile, for younger readers, in a 'A Very Quacky Christmas', written by Frances Watts and illustrated by Ann James, Samantha Duck is getting ready for Christmas. ‘I’m going to give presents to animals all over the world!’ Her friend Sebastian tells her not to bother. ‘Christmas is not for animals,’ he says. But Samantha has a very positive nature and with the help of her farmyard friends she sets out to prove that Christmas is for everyone. This is a joyous tale of giving and sharing, and the power of the imagination to rethink the meaning of Christmas.

There are of course countless other useful professional and academic books, only a few of which I have read; I therefore would invite those of you who have read any that you would like to recommend (or advise against!) to do so. Comments can be sent to me at

Seasons greetings

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