Philanthropy as Commons: An Overview for Discussion

24 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2022

See all articles by Brent Never

Brent Never

University of Missouri at Kansas City

Robert K. Christensen

Brigham Young University - Marriott School

Brenda Bushouse

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Date Written: March 1, 2022


Philanthropy has witnessed increased turbulence if not decline. In the United States, volunteering is down (Nesbit and Christensen 2018), workplace donations are down (Shaker and Christensen 2017) and while United Way giving is still at arguably high levels, even these have steadily declined since 2007 (Charity Watch 2019). The Nonprofit Quarterly reports that one of the most concerning pieces of this general trend is “the steady decline in the proportion of Americans who report making donations to charitable organizations” (Ashley, 2019). This same trend is evident in the United Kingdom and Canada, where the proportion of givers is on the decline and the mode of giving has evolved to episodic and online.

This book assembles evidence and insights around the argument that philanthropy–its turbulence and, in some cases, decline–may be better understood as a common pool resource or “commons.” These are resources that are subtractable and difficult to exclude, which can lead to depletion if institutional arrangements do not successfully govern the commons (Ostrom 1990). The book integrates scholarly perspectives with a range of empirical, theoretical and methodological approaches to critically assess the argument that donative philanthropy is a Commons, exhibiting both the difficulty of exclusion from asks and that the cumulative asks for money can deplete the giving resource/giving energy. The philanthropy-as-commons conceptualization focuses attention on a variety of institutional arrangements that are used to ‘extract’ philanthropy. Various chapters assess the extent to which different institutional arrangements, e.g., Giving Circles, GoFundMe, Donor Advised Funds, Community Foundations, either promote a healthy commons or do little to sustain philanthropic resources and exacerbate the tragedies of the philanthropy-as-commons, including donor fatigue.

Keywords: Philanthropy, Commons, CPR

Suggested Citation

Never, Brent and Christensen, Robert K. and Bushouse, Brenda, Philanthropy as Commons: An Overview for Discussion (March 1, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Brent Never

University of Missouri at Kansas City ( email )

5100 Rockhill Road
Kansas City, MO 64110-2499
United States

Robert K. Christensen (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University - Marriott School ( email )

United States

HOME PAGE: http://

Brenda Bushouse

University of Massachusetts Amherst ( email )

Thompson Hall
Amherst, MA 01003
United States
4132304907 (Phone)
01003 (Fax)


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