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Hyperagency and High-Tech Donors: A New Theory of the New Philanthropists

Hyperagency and High-Tech Donors:
A New Theory of the New Philanthropists
Paul G. Schervish
Boston College
Social Welfare Research Institute
November 14, 2003
Social action . . . may be oriented to the past,
present, or expected future behavior of others.”
-Max Weber (Economy and Society, p. 22)
In this paper I develop the theoretical concept of hyperagency and apply it to
interpret the philanthropy of high-tech donors in particular, and wealthy donors in
general. Over the past two decades, there has been a substantial rekindling of interest in
the notion of agency as a conceptual tool for understanding the practices of individuals as
both constrained by their circumstances and transformative of them (Giddens 1984;
Sewell 1992; Emirbayer and Mische 1998). This emphasis on individual practice has
grown in part from efforts by Marxists and non-Marxists alike to counter structuralist
analyses that have focused on charting the positions to which individuals are distributed
in the social structure and on the patterns of relations determined by the roles, norms, and
interests associated with these positions, such as the class positions (Wright 1997; Wood
1995). The resultant focus on agency and the actual practice of agents as making
relatively free choices, albeit within given conditions, has a natural affinity with theories
of individual philanthropy which emphasize the voluntary and potentially transformative
efforts of individuals on the world in which they live.
Our research on wealth and philanthropy over the past twenty years has in large
part revolved around determining the distinctive quality or class trait that distinguishes
the empowerment of wealth holders in realms of business and politics, as well as life-
style and philanthropy (Schervish et. al 1994; Schervish 1997). Our finding is that at
least in the material realm, the class trait of wealth holders is hyperagency, which I define
as the array of dispositions and capacities that enable individuals to relatively single-
handedly produce the social outcomes they desire, as well as the conditions within which
they and others exercise their agency. If agency is the capacity to make choices largely
within the rules and resources that are socially given, hyperagency is the capacity to be a
creator or producer of those rules and resources. If agents are finders of the most
desirable or fitting place for themselves within a limited range of possibilities,
hyperagents are founders of those possibilities for themselves, as well as for others.
What takes the aid of a social, political, religious, or philanthropic movement for agents
to achieve, can be achieved by hyperagents pretty much single-handedly.
Although to this point I have developed and employed a rudimentary notion of
hyperagency in our studies on wealth and philanthropy, I have not systematically
connected it to the theoretical literature on agency or used it as the fundamental
explanatory concept for an extended study of giving patterns by wealth holders. It is my
intention to take up each of these issues in this paper. In the first section of the paper, I
draw on the sociological literature to identify those aspects of the theory of agency in so
far as they are relevant to elaborating a general understanding of hyperagency (Emirbayer
and Mische 1998; Alexander 1992; Archer 1982; Coleman 1990; Turner 1994). In the
second section I elaborate the meaning of hyperagency as a distinctive kind of agency
with specific dispositions and capacities. In the third section, I use this developed notion
of hyperagency as the principal interpretative concept for analyzing the dispositions and
practices that high-tech donors manifest in business and philanthropy. In the conclusion,
I indicate the implications of the research for the understanding of hyperagency, the new
philanthropists, the new horizons of philanthropy in general, and of fundraising.
In developing and demonstrating the workings of hyperagency, I draw on the
findings from the 2001 High-Tech Donors Study, which was carried out by the Boston
College Social Welfare Research Institute, January through March 2001 (Schervish et. al
2001). The leading questions of the research revolved around discerning: first, the
relationship between how high-tech wealth holders accumulate their money in business
and how they allocate it to philanthropy; second, the range of personal, business, and
philanthropic issues that surround high-tech wealth and philanthropy; third, the
implications of the findings for understanding and improving the trajectory of the
philanthropy carried out by high-tech donors; and fourth, the application of what I would
learn to further our understanding of the emerging problems and prospects of
philanthropy in general. The research was conducted on behalf of the Association of
Fundraising Professionals (formerly the National Society of Fund Raising Executives);
and was initiated and funded by Dr. Robert B. Pamplin, Jr., President and CEO of the
R.B. Pamplin Corporation in Portland, Oregon.
Sociological Considerations of Agency
In this paper prepared for presentation at the ARNOVA conference I review only
briefly some of the major directions in the literature on agency and will move rather
directly to the synthesis of my positive theory of agency and hyperagency.
Significant strides have been made in transcending the social structure/human
agency antimony by figures such as Bourdieu (1984) and especially by Giddens (1979,
1984) in his conception of the "duality of structure,” and by Emirbayer and Mische
(1998) in their comprehensive recasting of the For Giddens in his theory of structuration,
social structure has only a "virtual" existence, existing only at moments in time and space
when embodied by individual agents endowed with a relatively high degree of reflexive
self-consciousness. On the other hand, agency cannot take place without the rules and
resources of structure which both enable and constrain individual and collective agency.
According to Giddens, structure is dual because it is both the medium and outcome of
agency. Structuration theory embraces this notion of duality in order to accentuate the
creative and transformative potential of human agency in relation to institutional
existence. For Giddens, agency is thus the purposeful practice of individual actors that
occurs in the context of acknowledged and unacknowledged conditions and produces
intended and unintended consequences. Agency is the strategic practice of individuals in
which they exercise power or capacity to accomplish transformative reproduction. In
other words, agency is the practice of individuals that begins in given structural
conditions and results in transformative reproduction of structural outcomes. Giddens’s
insists on the notion of transformative reproduction in order to denote that it is impossible
for an act of agency to simply reproduce the past since every action is unique in time and
space and environment. At the same time, no act of agency can ever be completely
transformative, since any change remains organically connected to its origins in time and
A second significant contribution to understanding agency is that of Emirbayer
and Mische (1998) who provide what they call a chordal triad of agency focusing on the
past, present, and future—not unlike Giddens’s triad of structural conditions, agency, and
structural outcomes. Emirbayer and Mische define agency “as the temporally
constructed engagement by actors of different structural environments—the temporal-
relational contexts of action—which, through the interplay of habit, imagination, and
judgment, both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the
problems posed by changing historical situations” (authors’ emphasis) (p. 970).
The first aspect of the chordal triad is the iterational element which relates to how
agents relate to the past: “It refers to the selective reactivation by actors of past patterns
of thought and action, as routinely incorporated in practical activity, thereby giving
stability and order to social universes and helping to sustain identities, interactions, and
institutions over time” (authors’ emphasis) (p. 971). The second aspect is the projective
element, akin to Giddens’s notion of strategic conduct oriented toward creating the
future: “ Projectivity encompasses the imaginative generation by actors of possible
future trajectories of action, in which received structures of thought and action may be
creatively reconfigured in relation to actors’ hopes, fears, and desires for the futurep.
971). Finally, the aspect of agency that relates to the present is the practical evaluative
element: the capacity of actors to make practical and normative judgments among
alternative possible trajectories of action, in response to the emerging demands,
dilemmas, and ambiguities of presently evolving situations” (authors’ emphasis) (p. 971).
I agree with Emirbayer and Mische that of the three elements, the most
neglected has been the projective element. Both Giddens's work and others have tended
to speak more about, even if not theoretically privileging , the aspects of social structure
that condition agency. They stress how agents within the medium of structure reproduce
that structure; or, in other words, how the structure serves as a set of constraints and
enablements that limit and empower the voluntaristic instrumentality of agents. The
transformative or formative aspects of agency are not absent from the theory, but those
aspects are not as emphasized as the rules and resources of structure that precede and
condition agency.
Drawing on Giddens and Emirbayer and Mische, my understanding of agency is
that it is the array of strategic practices by which an actor closes the gap between the past
and the future. For me starting point for a broader synthetic understanding philanthropy
as agency resides in Aristotle’s broad discussion of the relation of choice and virtue in his
Nicomachean Ethics (1999). Aristotle says that the goal of life is happiness and implies
that happiness is achieved by closing the gap between where one is and where one wants
to be. This gap is closed by making choices which are, at their normative best, what he
would consider to be permeated with an educated wisdom serving as the basis for wise
choices. Agency, then, is the set of practices that implement the possible choices facing
agents and that constitute a perpetual migration from genesis to telesis, from history to
aspiration. Wise choices, insists Aristotle, require both the freedom to act voluntarily and
the virtue of wisdom. There can be no virtue without freedom; and no true freedom
without virtue. Without capacity there is no possibility of choice, just as without virtue
there is no possibility of directing capacity. Making wise choices is thus the practice of
moral agency, the combination of capacity and character or moral compass. Notice, that
here I do not give any particular content to what constitutes wisdom or a wise choice.
But if wisdom is understood as a sensitized or conscientious normative orientation, the
term is akin to what Emile Durkheim means by morally oriented behavior which he and
others at the dawn of sociology derived from the Latin mores meaning the customs,
traditions, or value-laden normative currents that provide the frameworks and aspirations
for agency.
In my schema, then, agency is the implementation of practical-evaluative choices
in the light of iterational conditions and directed toward a projectivity of aspiration. In a
word, agency revolves around genesis, telesis, and choice—what Emirbayer and Mische
call routine, purpose, and judgment (p. 963). In regard to the past, agency is situated
within the conditions comprised of normative and existential frameworks of thinking,
feeling, and acting; and comprised of human and material resources (Giddens, 1984;
Sewell 1992). In turn, agency is directed toward accomplishing one’s normative and
utopian frameworks; and toward creating new distributions or orders of human and
material resources. Agency is the realm of human causal practice of choice that draws on
genetic or starting conditions (personal and social) of capacity and moral foundation in
order to generate teletic outcomes (personal and social) of capacity and moral aspiration.
I have already indicated that most work on agency revolves around issues of the
past rather than to the future—what Emirbayer and Mische say is the domain in which
social actors “construct changing images of where they think they are going, where they
want to go, and how they can get there from where they are at present” (p. 984). This is
exceptionally important because of the theoretical bias against seeing how even wealth
holders and other endowed or capacitated actors are engaged in builders of a new
dispensation. For instance, Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner in their books The Dominant
Ideology Thesis and The Sovereign Individuals of Capitalism argue that there is a relative
autonomy of discourse and ideology from economic practice. In the terms of Emirbayer
and Mische, Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner would say that despite any internal or
external discourse individuals may express in regard to where they are and where they
want to go, the constraints of economic structure, in particular advanced capitalism,
soundly limit the possibility of actually creating alternative futures. In particular, they
claim that there is no necessary connection between the ideology of individualism, on the
one hand, and the actual workings of capitalism and the characteristics of economic
subjects who work within it. In essence, in their second book they argue that the
increasingly bureaucratic nature of advanced capitalism contradicts the ideological
discourse of individualism and individual efficaciousness that maintains that empowered
autonomous individuals are able to personify themselves through purposive social
practices. They conclude that even though a vision of sovereign individualism dominates
the ideology of western capitalism, no such individualism exists in either the dominant or
subordinate classes.
In contrast, I argue that the wealth holders sovereign individuals capable of
incarnating their aspirations and expectations into actual practices and organizational
forms. In fact all individuals as Giddens (1984) insists are in certain circumstances and
under certain conditions capable of shaping outcomes through agency—especially when
amalgamate in social, cultural, and political movements.
While recognizing that all individuals are not equally capable of a socially or
culturally formative agency, I do maintain that certain individuals, those imbued with a
certain material and psychological capacity, are clearly able to shape alternative futures
not just for themselves but for others as well. These particularly endowed agents capable
of implementing their projectivity are what I call hyperagents. Although not all
hyperagents need be wealth holders (for instance, saints and poets, as Wilder reminds us
in Our Town), all wealth holders are, when and where they choose, capable of exercising
lesser or greater degrees of hyperagency. Wealth holders are uniquely endowed with
material resources and cognitive dispositions that enable them, both as a group and as
individuals, to fashion outcomes they desire to effect . Wealth grants a special capacity
for empowerment. Whereas all individuals exercise agency, the distinctive class trait of
hyperagency is the capacity to establish rather than merely receive the social matrix
within which they live. The wealthy construct a worldly realm of principality in time and
space and an inner domain of individuality. As such, hyperagency is distinctive moral
identity in addition to sustaining a formative practice.
Hyperagency is privileged position in the process of structuration, as Giddens puts
the process by which agents are situated within structural conditions and via agency carry
out reproductive transformation of those conditions. Hyperagents, in contrast to agents
are not only have greater command over the frameworks and resources comprising the
structural conditions but also over shaping the frameworks and resources that comprise
the structural outcomes. It is not that hyperagent can single-handedly and completely
transform the entire world around them. But that they can and do carry out the
transformative moment of structuration as a matter of course in their daily practices of
business, family, consumption, politics, and philanthropy,
Elements of Hyperagency—Realms of Capacity and Moral Compass
In Gospels of Wealth (Schervish, Coutsoukis, and Lewis, 1994), I described three
inter-related components of the capacities that constitute the genetic resources which
hyperagents draw on in exercising their productive agency. These are
(1) psychological empowerment—the disposition of great expectations, the
legitimacy of those expectations, and the confidence to achieve them;
(2) spatial empowerment—the capacity to establish a protective wall from
intrusion and to extend one’s influence geographically beyond one’s
immediate personal presence; and
(3) temporal empowerment—the ability to reshape the past, forge the present, and
bind the future.
Clearly, such capacity does not guarantee that hyperagents will make wise productive
decisions and generate an offspring of benefit for themselves and others. It does,
however, guarantee that such individuals will possess a broad horizon of choice, that their
choices will have the capacity to fashion the choices of others, and that their agency will
advance or impede the teletic ends of themselves and others.
In addition to exercising the foregoing resources, productive agency brings to bear
normative and existential frameworks that direct the use of their resources. In Gospels of
Wealth (1994), I also described three inter-related aspects of normative orientation that
come into play to order hyperagents’ productive empowerment :
(1) the daily exercise of what is conceived to be virtue or strength of character
that directs how hyperagents work with the opportunities and obstacles of the
hand that life has dealt them;
(2) the special exercise of character that is required to face tests of moral fiber
that occur as individuals move through formative life-course transitions from
one social status and personal identity to another; and
(3) the impulse to make the big and small events of biography a redemptive
process of life, death, and rebirth in the quest for healing, learning,
forgiveness, and union.
The quotidian exercise of virtue, dutiful commitment during transitions, and the quest for
transformation are the aspects of moral orientation, when married to psychological,
spatial, and temporal empowerment, comprise the general framework of meaning and
practice of agency—and when exercised in a institutionally formative manner, in a
productive rather than participative effort, they constitute the meaning and practice of
Hyperagency and High-Tech Donors
I now turn to explaining the underlying material and dispositional capacity of
effectiveness—what I call hyperagency—that undergirds the hyperagent-animated
character of high-tech donors, which they garner from their commercial dealings and
translate to their philanthropy. When coupled to the dynamics of gratitude, identification
and association, world-building does not stop at the doors to their homes or their
businesses, but extends to all their involvements including, for those who choose,
politics, community, religion, and philanthropy. The wealthy are by dint of personality no
more egoistically myopic or socially responsible than anyone else. Great expectations
and grand aspirations occupy people across the financial spectrum. What is different for
wealth holders is that they can be more legitimately confident about actualizing their
expectations and aspirations because they are able to directly effect the fulfillment of
their desires. A retired Hewlett-Packard executive (all identifying information has been
changed) voices the kind of can-do productive disposition that psychological
empowerment affords:
I think for young high-tech entrepreneurs getting involved in a start-up it's
the excitement of being able to work in a small, agile, nimble place that
can sort of say, hey, let’s go do something in kind of a swat team way and
go see it done because that had been their professional experience. . . . So
these people’s professional experiences, hey you get together a group of
twenty to forty people, you see some product that needs to be done, you go
off and make it, it’s on the shelf two years later, you’ve had this huge
impact, and I think that that’s, that is the mentality that they bring to
philanthropy as well.
That high-tech donors are hyperagents in philanthropy does not mean that they always
and everywhere conceive of or achieve major innovative interventions. It does mean that
they tend to think more about doing so, and partake more in actualizing them, as the
retired co-founder of an internet communications company says. “I'm a big believer now
that your visions and your goals can happen if you actually take time to think about what
you want them to be. I'm a big believer in writing them down and they tend to become
reality because you start taking the steps to get there.”
Hyperagents act in philanthropy with two defining aspects of entrepreneurship.
First they identify a creative idea: they discern an area of output for which demand
outstrips supply. Second, entrepreneurs actively affect the rate of return on their
investment by directly commanding production. The distinctive class trait of the high-
tech donors is their ability to bring into being, not just support, particular charitable
projects. Hyperagency in the field of philanthropy assigns financial resources to
fashioning major outcomes. When exercising this capacity, high-tech donors are
producers rather than supporters of philanthropy, underwriters rather than just
contributors. Finding neglected social niches where needs are great and resources scarce
is precisely the explicit strategy of many respondents whom we interviewed. This
attitude of identifying and accomplishing an aspiration through their own efforts is
evinced by virtually all high-tech donors. One West Coast former Hewlett-Packard
executive talks about how “inspiring” it was to salvage a conservation initiative which
had fallen through. “All these people who had been working on it were so despondent,”
he says speaking about the organization of individual who had attempted to buy up some
forest land. But armed with the psychological empowerment of great expectations and
the material wherewithal to create a temporal-spatial principality, this hyperagent had a
plan and a capacity to achieve it the non hyperagents found hard to believe. “Well why
don’t we just try to go raise this money privately,” he told them; “and they said, ‘look,
nobody’s ever raised $13 million for private land, for a land conservation effort before
and we did it in like three months’” without success. But for him possible and rewarding:
“It was just very empowering and motivating to see how basically overnight we could
protect such a huge area, protect the lynx population, and so forth; it was pretty
Furthermore, this philanthropy turnaround specialist ascribes his fundraising
success to his own ability to get things done and to enlist other hyperagent who share that
disposition. He and all those he enlisted to secure the needed $13 million, he says, “all
come from a business that was this really empowering business where you could go
decide to do something, and two years later there will be some product that will be used
in every company in the world. . . . [These] people sort of believe that ‘oh, well I can just
go out and do something and then at the end this will essentially be sort of a product.’
They don’t have this feeling of change takes a long time.” And this extends to
philanthropy as well. “So when you go to these people and say, ‘give us your money and
at the end of a year or two, you will have personally, along with a hundred other people,
helped protect these 25,000 acres and the lynx population, and you’ll have done
something, and essentially there will have been a product that you will have produced,’
they get that instantly. There wasn’t any hesitancy about it – they said ‘cool, that’s what
I’ll do.’
In common parlance we regularly speak of donors and major donors.
Distinguishing between supporters and producers of philanthropy is a more functional
distinction. Each philanthropic enterprise pursues resources in order to produce
outcomes in response to social needs and interests. Most individuals respond to appeals
for contributions in a manner similar to the way a consumer responds to the products or
services of a business. They are just one person among a far larger pool of actors. They
do not individually have enough buying power to have a firm create a product for them;
nor do they single-handedly have enough giving power to be create or re direct the
charitable enterprise to which they contribute. Only as a group acting formally or
informally in concert, can everyday contributors fashion the fate or mission of a
charitable enterprise. Because it is the accumulated support of many individuals, rather
than of any particular single individual, that determines the existence and direction of a
venture, individuals with only modest resources are at most joint or collateral producers.
It is a different story altogether when high-tech donors contribute a sizable
enough gift to actually shape the agenda of a charity or nonprofit institution. In this
instance, the contributor may be termed a direct producer or architect. Such direct
production, of course, cuts two ways, and so it is always important to discern the
conditions under which philanthropic hyperagency produces care rather than control, as
we will discuss later.
The extreme case of direct production in philanthropy is the personal founding of
an original philanthropic organization or project. We heard several instances of how
high-tech donors either have or plan to create a private or working foundation. One
respondent has begun to work on elevating teachers’ salaries by providing the money to
do so in one school, in the hope that the positive effect will spillover as pressure on
surrounding schools to do likewise. Another respondent explains that his dream
sometime in the next five years is to endow a foundation that will supply the funds to
raise teachers’ salaries in the inner city of his hometown where he attended school in a
more advantageous time. Less formally, another high-tech donor produced the
philanthropic outcome by financially “adopting” a niece with Downs' syndrome. And
still another provides substantial enough gifts to all his and his wife’s siblings to provide
a level of financial security that will liberate them to make choices in their lives based on
a desire for significance rather than on a need for income. Whether formally or
informally, at a distance or close to home, it is the possibility and practice of “making a
difference” that undergirds the determination and dominion of high-tech philanthropists.
Such hyperagency infuses all the philanthropic endeavors of high-tech donors, but it
shows up in particular in three forms of what we call intercessional philanthropy.
Varieties of Intercessional Philanthropy
Strictly speaking, “venture capital,” the term that spawned the analogous “venture
philanthropy,” denotes the more or less active dedication of an investor’s money and
expertise and sometimes direct involvement to propel an entrepreneurial activity initiated
by someone else. But as the term has come to be associated with philanthropy it refers to
a range of approaches that are in fact more widespread and multifaceted than what is
strictly parallel to venture capital in the business world. We find that much of what is
regularly included within the category of venture philanthropy is more accurately called
managerial philanthropy or entrepreneurial philanthropy.
Managerial philanthropy is the contribution of organizational expertise without
the contribution of financial resources to elevate the effectiveness of a charitable
organization. One example is the respondent, whose wealth is mainly tied up in a
Silicon Valley Internet start-up. She contributes some money but much
managerial expertise to her alma mater, Stanford University, to help with
fundraising and to develop better fundraising methods. A more extensive
statement of this managerial strategy is provided by a former software
What I felt was my greatest strength is the managerial side. I can manage
people, I understand how people work, I don't try to categorize them all
the same and I understand the differences. Pure entrepreneurs are typically
pretty horrible managers because they want everything to happen in five
seconds, they don't understand why everything can't be done in thirty
seconds. Why isn't everybody as smart, if you will, why doesn't everybody
see it like them, and then they just want to put their foot right on the
accelerator and go as fast as they can. And I have some of those
tendencies, but I have the ability to know that there's a brake as well and I
know when to use it.
Entrepreneurial philanthropy is the joint contribution of both human and financial
capital of a wealth holder to inaugurate either a new charitable enterprise or a new
component within an existing charity. For instance, there is the Austin high-tech
entrepreneur who expends the majority of his philanthropic dollars and time overseeing
his entrepreneurial start-up of a charity dedicated to overcoming the digital divide facing
urban youth. A fuller example is offered by a self-described social entrepreneur who is
starting his own charity:
To me an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur is someone who looks at
something that doesn’t exist and says why can’t it exist, as opposed to
someone who looks at something and says that can’t happen. An
entrepreneur to me is someone who is willing to create something from
nothing, who is willing to go in and get your hands dirty, and make change
happen and instigate change, and create new ideas or institutions or
organizations, and get a return on that investment of time and energy and
effort made. The social return is measured perhaps in community capital
or human capital or social capital. It just happens not to be measured in
financial capital, but it is still the same entrepreneurial instincts and drive
which happens to be focused on the social sector.
In my view, venture philanthropy is that “middle” form that infuses managerial
advice and financial resources into a philanthropic effort, but does not interject the hands-
on daily direction that is the hallmark of an entrepreneur. Here I place the Boston
software entrepreneur, who has started his own family foundation, but nonetheless also
contributes both money and skills to help others get a charity off the ground by assisting
with goal definition, planning, and advice about how to leverage funding. A former
software entrepreneur who retired and started his own family foundation provides an
example of this middle path of venture philanthropy:
There are certainly a lot of techniques and ways of thinking about problems that I
have the benefit of from my background that I have discussed with a number of
nonprofit organizations. You’d be surprised at the things and ways of making
decisions, thinking about problems and ways of planning strategy and things that
someone like myself would take for granted. A lot of people in these
organizations have never had to think about things that way. So a little advice or
insight for how the entrepreneurs approach problems actually goes a long way and
helps them quite a bit. I’ll give you an example. I am working with a woman who
is starting up a new 501 (c)(3), a new organization. I am making an exception
because I am actually going to join her board and help her bootstrap that whole
thing. A lot of it has to do with how much I think my assistance can be leveraged.
If it’s a situation where I can get in there for an hour a week or over the phone or
something like that, have a large impact in helping somebody, it's attractive to me.
It’s sort of the work/reward ratio. Also what we’ve done is set up a program with
her where we are putting up half of her start-up funding as a matching grant. So
that is another example of the entrepreneurial thing. If we put in as a matching
grant, you may be able to use that as leverage when you go to other organizations
and say, look, this Family Foundation is putting in for half, we need to get the
other half and can we count on you. So that’s helpful.
In the course of the interviews we discovered so many additional examples of
donors pursuing each of these forms that we conclude that carrying out one or more of
these intercessional philanthropic strategies is a leading characteristic of high-tech
donors. We also conclude that in order to accurately portray what high-tech donors are
doing, the conceptual framework for speaking about them needs to be expanded beyond
the term “venture philanthropy” so as to highlight the important differences from
managerial and entrepreneurial philanthropy. The three approaches are similar in that
each entails a practice of organizational leadership and a disposition focused on
improving effectiveness. But in order to understand more accurately what high-tech
donors are actually doing, and in order to better alert them to the variety of intercessional
strategies they may wish to pursue, it is necessary to recognize the differences among
managerial, venture, and entrepreneurial philanthropy. Indeed, the future of so-called
venture philanthropy or, better of venture philanthropists engaged in various venture
partner organizations, is more likely to revolve around entrepreneurial philanthropy to the
extent these high-tech donors solidify their wealth, garner more time to pursue their
philanthropic purposes, and discover the causes and people on behalf of which they
desire to exert their hyperagency.
This paper has addressed with a new theoretical grounding and application our central
finding from almost 20 years of studying wealth holders, namely that the distinctive class
trait of wealth holders is their self-formation and history-making capacity of
hyperagency. For sure, not every hyperagent is wealthy. Some financially
undistinguished folk make history by virtue of being profound, creative, or spiritual. But
in the material realm, including charitable contributions, every wealth holder is at least a
potential hyperagent. Hyperagency refers to the enhanced capacity of wealthy
individuals to establish or control substantially the conditions under which they and
others carry out their agency. For most individuals, agency is limited to choosing among
and acting within the constraints of those situations in which they find themselves. As
monarchs of agency, the wealthy can circumscribe such constraints and, for good or for
ill, create for themselves a world more of their own design. As everyday agents, most of
us strive to find the best possible place to live or job to hold within a given field of
possibilities. As hyperagents, wealth holders—when they choose to do so—can found a
broad array of the field of possibilities within which they and others will live and work.
Whether inherited or earned, the possession of substantial financial wherewithal provides
a range of material choice and a corresponding moral disposition of great expectations
which set them apart from other agents in society. If the social meaning of money in
general is agency in general, the social meaning of wealth is hyperagency.
In one of his more famous statements, Marx said “Men make their own history,
but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected
circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the
past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the
living. For Marx something new was possible in his day—the first truly revolutionary
break with the past history of class society. It did not happen, of course, as he
envisioned; but part of what he said it would take to shape history is exactly what
characterizes hyperagents. That is, those who are “occupied with revolutionizing
themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before” must be able to do
more than “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from
them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world
history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” They who seek to formatively
shape history “cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future.” Agents are
often condemned to conjure the future in thought and word but not to accomplish its
content. Hyperagents are different; for them “the content goes beyond the phrase” (The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon).
Hyperagents, it turns out, do "make history" for themselves and others. As a
social practice of individuals, hyperagency refers to the enhanced capacity of wealthy
individuals to exercise effective control over conditions under which they will engage in
social action, and additionally, to set the boundaries for the history-making potential of
less empowered individuals. High-tech donors are an identifiable contemporary group of
Hyperagents; but not everything about them and their philanthropy is as new as many
people imply.
On a personal level, they join all wealthy donors in feeling a mixture of guilt and
gratitude about their good fortune; are mobilized by the full range of charitable
motivations from prestige to identification with the fate of others to wanting to make a
difference, and must be vigilant about using special capacity for care rather than
Also not novel among high-tech donors, but common to many wealthy
philanthropists, currently and in the past, is the application of business principles to
philanthropy. Although the language in which high-tech donors characterize their
philanthropy is somewhat distinctive, the fact that they often pursue intercessional
philanthropy is not unique. We have documented venture philanthropy as early as 1986
as a long-standing approach of many philanthropists, including inheritors of old money
and entrepreneurs working in the old economy. Moreover, venture philanthropy is not
the only or necessarily primary intercessional strategy; managerial and entrepreneurial
philanthropy are in fact equally, if not more prominent. In fact, we found that high-tech
donors pursue the whole range of strategies as all wealth holders—from simply writing a
check to the United Way, to adopting relatives, to brokering donations, to contributing to
the organizations whose services they and their families use, such as religious
congregations, schools, and museums.
Despite these continuities with other contemporary wealth holders and philanthropists
from the past, there are several distinctive traits of high-tech philanthropy today. Their
business experience is different from those of small business owners, the professionals,
the inherited wealthy, and the shrewd investor. Their formative experiences in the New
Economy coupled to their generally young age and velocity of assent to wealth mark
them and their philanthropy with a particular set of concerns, attitudes, hopes and snares.
We found that as a group, they are explicitly and consistently entrepreneurial
hyperagents. They tend to expect and encourage nonprofits to pursue, as a path to
achieve their service goals, the business goals of efficiency, strategic thinking,
innovation, risk-taking, good management, accountability, measurable goals, and growth
in scale. They have confidence in being able to seek out, attack and alleviate social and
organizational problems. They are universally imbued with an optimistic, energetic, and
problem-solving mentality. They generally believe that education and development of
human capital provide the best solutions to society's problems.
Of course their self assurance, can-do attitude, and relative inexperience can lead
them at times to be arrogant and presumptuous. However, we found only very occasional
evidence of such conceit. With only two exceptions, the respondents were patient and
forthcoming in their interviews, and overwhelmingly concerned to educate themselves
about the needs they might address, and how best to work with others to meet those
needs. In tone and practice they were certainly determined, but also experimental in the
sense of being seriously concerned about finding the most helpful way to apply their
business skills which seemed for the moment to be their best contribution; to consciously
figure out and construct a philanthropic identity; to come to terms with affluence, and
with the balance of family, business and philanthropy; and to seek out opportunities for
self-reflection, association, and identification in order to be most effective in their
Never before, we conclude, have so many wealth holders, with such an
entrepreneurial experience, at such a young age, with such great wealth, and with so
much future time, and in so many arenas been this consciously intercessional, and
purposefully self-reflective about their philanthropy. Still, none of this means that they
will necessarily be of great service with their philanthropy, because the very same
hyperagency that offers a great potential for creating substantial benefit also has the
potential for heavy-handed intrusion. The two-edged sword of being intercessional can
result, as we said, in both a formidable contribution of care as well as an overbearing
assertion of domination.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1992. “Some Remarks on ‘Agency’ in Recent Sociological
Theory.” Perspectives (Theory Section Newsletter, American Sociological
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Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Emirbayer, Mustafa, and Ann Mische. 1998. “What is Agency?” American Journal of
Sociology, 103(4): 962-1023.
Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of
Structuration. Berkeley, CA: U California P.
Schervish, Paul G. 1997. "Major Donors, Major Motives: The People and Purposes
Behind Major Gifts." New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising: Developing
Major Gifts, 16: 85-112.
Schervish, Paul G., Platon Coutsoukis, and Ethan Lewis. 1994. Gospels of Wealth: How
the Rich Portray their Lives. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Schervish, Paul G., Mary A. O’Herlihy, and John J. Havens. 2001. “Agent Animated
Wealth and Philanthropy: The Dynamics of Accumulation and Allocation Among
High-Tech Donors." Social Welfare Research Institute, Boston College. Final
Report of the 2001 High-Tech Donors Study.
Sewell, William H. Jr. 1992. “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and
Transformation.” American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1-29.
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Presuppositions. Chicago: U Chicago P.
Wood, Ellen Meiskins. 1995. Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical
Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Wright, Eric Olin. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
... There are other models which offer insights drawn from interviews of philanthropists, though none are as well-developed as the two mentioned above, developed by Schervish. Those that have been developed in the form of typologies (Odendahl 1990;Ostrander and Schervish 1990;Prince and File 1994;Schervish 1992Schervish , 2000aSchervish , 2003Schervish and Herman 1988) have been discussed in Chapter Three. In addition to these, Lloyd (2004) and subsequently Breeze and Lloyd (2013) have explained what they identified as ten factors behind the philanthropic behaviour of wealthy givers in the UK. ...
... Banking (Havens et al. 2006;Havens and Schervish 2001;Schervish 2000b;Schervish and Havens 2001a). The 2001 High-Tech Donors Study on the "new philanthropy" drew on interviews with 28 high-tech wealth holders involved in philanthropy (Schervish 2003(Schervish , 2005b(Schervish , 2014bSchervish and O'Herlihy 2002). The Boston Area Diary Study was the exception to Schervish's studies of only wealthy philanthropists in that it was a study of the prosocial behaviour of 44 randomly selected wealthy and non-wealthy 85 Boston residents over one calendar year Havens 2001b, 2002). ...
... Mentioned, also, in the context of frameworks of consciousness, are notions such as "giving back", also seen as a factor in philanthropy of the elite by Odendahl (1990) 97 and by Prince and File (1994) (who identify such people as repayers); or, giving with gratitude for good fortune (Scaife et al. 2011;Schervish 2000bSchervish , 2003Schervish and Havens 2011). Schervish says of wealthy philanthropists that: ...
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The motivations for elite philanthropy are frequently questioned and often considered to be self-serving. Most of the evidence advanced to support this, however, is drawn from studies of Western philanthropists. This thesis examines elite philanthropy in India. The research applies a methodology and theoretical framework that has been used for similar research in the West. It discovers that, although the motivating factors which influence Indian philanthropists are similar to those for the West, their outcome is significantly different. This research shows elite Indian philanthropists could be understood as more altruistic and less self-serving than those identified in the West.
... The UN historically has provided a structure and forum for negotiating education policies and goals among UN member states, which contributes to the political legitimacy of UN agencies such as UNESCO. Philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation, however, represent a somewhat different category of transnational non-state actors which have been critiqued for their disproportionate agency, also termed hyperagency, in influencing local decisions despite lacking insight into, or legitimacy in, local contexts (Avelar, 2019;Schervish, 2003;Zero and Zero Soares, 2021). ...
... Notably, this was through privatization and marketization that led to the creation of worldwide markets of education development -a kind of market-led democratization. However, the shortcomings of the market in being able to effectively address and manage common good resources such as education (Desjardins et al., 2020;Wiksten, 2020) and the environment on a planetary scale (Misiaszek and Torres, 2019) demonstrate that weakening the role of the state in the lives of citizens and according more power to market and other non-state actors risks new forms of tyranny supported by forms of hyperagency, as seen in the example of education philanthropy (Schervish, 2003;Zero and Zero Soares, 2021). Notwithstanding, the powerful role of technological development supported by liberal market policies and its associated logics of competition contribute to a reconfiguration of the relationship between the state and its citizens. ...
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Civic education agendas have historically responded to major structural changes in societies. With roots in informal and nonformal education, early forms of civic education and proposals for public curricula sought to foster citizens of nation-states. After the Second World War, efforts to support peace brought about the first international agenda for education. Societal changes by the late 20th century contributed to the development of a global education market along with a proliferation of education stakeholders. These latter developments underscore the importance of shared international references related to civic education, particularly in response to a need to complement market driven approaches in ways that coordinate the peaceful negotiation of passions that arise from identity politics. The conclusion proposes that civic education in the 21st century should adopt humanizing approaches for addressing student needs to understand how civic issues and participation at the local, regional and global levels are interrelated and interact.
... Third, I reflect on the implications of the findings, namely on what these policy network arrangements mean for the democratic management of education, and give some consideration to the "hyperagency" (Schervish, 2003) of new philanthropy. ...
... That is to say, financial, reputational and social resources are being deployed to change the landscape of education in Brazil and the experience of education in Brazilian schools. New philanthropists are able to mobilise large amounts of capitals and enact what can be referred to as a "hyper agency" (Schervish, 2003). ...
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The provision of public services is increasingly shared in networks of governance with public and private actors, including business and philanthropy. Concomitantly, philanthropy is changing by incorporating business sensibilities, referred to as “new philanthropy”. Besides operating in service delivery, new philanthropists are working in policy-making, supporting policies that foment a corporate reform of education. This thesis aims to address the question of how new philanthropy operates in the network governance of education in Brazil, focusing on the labour invested by foundations in policy networks. Though having the main empirical setting of Brazilian institutions, this research analyses networks, policies and discourses that surpass national borders and considers their “glocal” dynamics, addressing how new philanthropists are connected to global networks and participate in global policy mobilities. The method of “network ethnography” is employed, with extensive online searches, interviews, and field observation. Throughout the activities, network graphs are built to identify relevant individuals, institutions and relationships. The method is supported by the approach of “following policy”, looking at the whos, whats and wheres of policy. Three fundamental and interrelated modalities of labour are identified in the activities of new philanthropy institutions: labour to frame policy problems and solutions with policy entrepreneurship; labour to coordinate, mobilise and activate relationships and resources in networks; and labour to institutionalise policies and relationships in heterarchies. This means that first, new philanthropists aim at participating in education policy-making, and labour to frame policy problems and solutions discursively. Second, networks are created and animated with many activities, such as sharing resources and promoting meetings to foster relationships. Finally, policy ideas and relationships become institutionalised in heterarchies, in which new philanthropy and public authorities collaborate to exert the governance of education. Throughout these efforts, boundaries between public and private are blurred, and education policy is rescaled globally.
... Lynch and Schwarz (2016) Hyperagency (Schervish, 2003) An expression of hyperagency, 'producing' philanthropy by creating new philanthropic organizations or significantly shaping the policies and agenda of existing philanthropic organizations in line with managerial logics. ...
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Philanthrocapitalism—the strategic application of market methods and motives for philanthropic purposes—plays increasingly prominent roles in policy design and implementation at national and international levels. Notwithstanding philanthrocapitalism's growing significance, relevant scholarly discourse remains limited and fragmented. Drawing together diverse debates, our paper systematically reviews and synthesizes academic literature on philanthrocapitalism. Alongside raising questions about the casting and practice of philanthropy, the 186 relevant publications included in our review indicate a strong emphasis of philanthrocapitalism in the areas of education, international development, healthcare and agriculture. Across these, we identify and discuss the importance of three cultural frames: (1) development challenges being framed as scientific problems; (2) beneficiaries being framed as productive entrepreneurs; and (3) philanthropy being framed as social investment. Outlining and critically examining these issues, this work contributes: a comprehensive analysis of key debates and issues; strengthened conceptual clarity and nuance through an evaluative exploration of the multiple interpretations of philanthrocapitalism; and a future research agenda to address persisting knowledge gaps and refine focus.
... Chapter 2) argues that business historians (Chernow, 1998; have identified successful and wealthy entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie and J D Rockefeller as having had an enduring impact on philanthropy on a global scale. Second, there is growing evidence of the involvement of contemporary, super-wealthy entrepreneurs in significant acts of philanthropy directed towards addressing persistent social and economic inequalities Schervish, 2003Schervish, , 2005Schervish, , 2008 Index indicate that many of the UK's wealthiest philanthropists are self-made millionaires, and the lists (Sunday Times, 2006 ...
... 22 Entrepreneurial philanthropists bring to their interventions not only money but also their name, networks, and business expertise, becoming activists for social change. 23 They are characterized by their drive to accumulate personal fortunes, together with a concomitant impulse to employ a share of their wealth in pursuit of philanthropic ventures they control. Hence, their focus is directed toward the (entrepreneurial) creation of wealth and the (philanthropic) redistribution of that wealth in pursuit of declared social objectives. ...
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How, why and with what consequences do entrepreneurs engage in philanthropy? This is the focal question of this special issue, and one that has yet to be satisfactorily answered in the literature on philanthropy. We propose that historical research has an important role to play in understanding the motives, methods, rewards, achievements and limitations of twenty-first century philanthropy, commonly identified with aspirational economic and social initiatives led by super-rich entrepreneurs and wealthy philanthropic foundations. History enables us to challenge received ideas by developing a richer, fuller and more nuanced understanding of the origins and evolution of now dominant philanthropic ideas, institutions, organizations and practices. The four articles selected for publication are exemplary in this respect. To establish a fitting context, we first survey the philanthropic landscape from a systemic standpoint, and, based on our own longue durée research findings, offer a number of historical perspectives on entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
... Within the policy landscape, foundations tend to be subliminal players, a widely unrecognised socio-political undercurrent. While philanthropy's hyperagency-its diverse capacities and dispositions that allow for the production of specific social outcomes and the creation of the conditions and contexts within which agency is exercised ( Schervish, 2013)is vividly displayed by the worldwide activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (e.g. McGoey, 2015), or claimed by, and ascribed to, the global ambitions of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (2017), in general, philanthropy tends to operate in more subtle ways: it shapes and influences by virtue of its selective, controlling and normative moulding of knowledge, discourse and practice (e.g. ...
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Philanthropy is gaining renewed policy prominence. Focusing on the institutional expressions of philanthropy – philanthropic foundations – this chapter critically explores foundations’ various contributions to, and roles in, global policy. Emphasising the need to move beyond traditional perspectives, dominant focal points and well-established questions around philanthropy, the chapter argues for more synthesised, critically reflective, engagement with philanthropy in global policy research. To this end, the importance of examining historic antecedents of contemporary developments in philanthropy and the need for a stronger evidence-base are outlined. The chapter concludes by discussing the spectrum of research opportunities philanthropy provides for the global policy and transnational administration field.
... Nonprofits are also linked to inequality because they provide major opportunities for elites to determine community priorities. That happens when elites serve on nonprofit boards, establish foundations, or make mega gifts -what Schervish (2003) refers to as "hyperagency." It is perhaps not surprising that charities are under increasing pressure to increase their fundraising effectiveness. ...
Conference Paper
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In this paper, we seek to advance nonprofit scholarship by applying a new conceptual framework, the policy fields approach, to systematically examine differences across nonprofit fields of activity. At its core, this framework focuses on the structure of relationships among the four sectors: government, nonprofit, market, and informal (or household). We argue that these relationships differ systematically across five policy fields (health, human services, education, arts and culture, and religion), most notably in the economic share that each sector holds and the functional division of labor among the sectors. Systemic differences also exist in the interaction of the nonprofit sector with government, market, and informal sectors in these policy fields. This approach provides a conceptual framework to understand the government-nonprofit relationship, offers a way of describing differences across policy fields, the factors responsible for this variation, and offers the predictive capacity to generate hypotheses and research designs for additional research.
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Elite philanthropy—voluntary giving at scale by wealthy individuals, couples and families—is intimately bound up with the exercise of power by elites. This theoretically oriented review examines how big philanthropy in the United States and United Kingdom serves to extend elite control from the domain of the economic to the domains of the social and political, and with what results. Elite philanthropy, we argue, is not simply a benign force for good, born of altruism, but is heavily implicated in what we call the new age of inequalities, certainly as consequence and potentially as cause. Philanthropy at scale pays dividends to donors as much as it brings sustenance to beneficiaries. The research contribution we make is fourfold. First, we demonstrate that the true nature and effects of elite philanthropy can only be understood in the context of what Bourdieu calls the field of power, which maintains the economic, social and political hegemony of the super‐rich, nationally and globally. Second, we demonstrate how elite philanthropy systemically concentrates power in the hands of mega foundations and the most prestigious endowed charitable organizations. Third, we explicate the similarities and differences between the four main types of elite philanthropy—institutionally supportive, market‐oriented, developmental and transformational—revealing how and why different sections within the elite express themselves through philanthropy. Fourth, we show how elite philanthropy functions to lock in and perpetuate inequalities rather than remedying them. We conclude by outlining proposals for future research, recognizing that under‐specification of constructs has hitherto limited the integration of philanthropy within the mainstream of management and organizational research.
Philanthrokapitalismus gehört zu den Spielarten einer neuen Philanthropie, die Handlungslogiken und Management-Strategien aus der Wirtschaft auf den Dritten Sektor überträgt. Das Phänomen wird mit philanthropischen Aktivitäten vermögender Unternehmerpersönlichkeiten und mit deren einflussreichen Stiftungen konnotiert, beeinflusst aber auch die Arbeitsweise und Förderpraxis anderer Organisationen. Philanthrokapitalismus steht für ein globales Modell institutionalisierter Förderung mit international ausgerichteter Programmatik, dessen empirische Relevanz, Funktionsweisen und Auswirkungen noch weitgehend unerforscht sind. Philanthrokapitalismus besitzt eine soziale, eine geographische, eine ökonomische, eine sozioökonomische, eine politische, eine kulturelle und eine ethische Dimension, die Ansatzpunkte für die Forschung liefern.
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The motives of donors of large gifts are both simple and complex. What motivates the wealthy is very much what motivates someone at any point along the economic spectrum, but complexities of ability, spirituality, and association come into play in the making of major gifts.
Introduction Part I. Historical Materialism and the Specificity of Capitalism: 1. The separation of the 'economic' and 'political' in capitalism 2. Rethinking base and superstructure 3. Class as process and relationship 4. History or technological determinism? 5. History or teleology? Marx v. Weber Part II. Democracy against Capitalism: 6. Labour and democracy, ancient and modern 7. The demos v. 'we, the people': from ancient to modern conceptions of citizenship 8. Civil society and the politics of identity 9. Capitalism and human emancipation: race, gender and democracy Conclusion.
This article aims (1) to analytically disaggregate agency into its several component elements (though these are interrelated empirically), (2) to demonstrate the ways in which these agentic dimensions inter-penetrate with forms of structure, and (3) to point out the implications of such a conception of agency for empirical research. The authors conceptualize agency as a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its "iterational" or habitual aspect) but also oriented toward the future (as a "projective" capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and toward the present (as a "practical-evaluative" capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment).
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Also CSST Working Paper #29.
Some Remarks on 'Agency' in Recent Sociological Theory
  • Jeffrey C Alexander
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1992. "Some Remarks on 'Agency' in Recent Sociological Theory." Perspectives (Theory Section Newsletter, American Sociological Association) 15:1-4.
Gospels of Wealth: How the Rich Portray their Lives
  • Paul G Schervish
  • Platon Coutsoukis
  • Ethan Lewis
Schervish, Paul G., Platon Coutsoukis, and Ethan Lewis. 1994. Gospels of Wealth: How the Rich Portray their Lives. Westport, CT: Praeger.