This will require two posts, and today will be the actual book review: it's not a great piece of work. Nonetheless I'll suggest that everyone working in this sector should read it.
I should also confess up front to some empathy for Brooks’ worldview: like me he is a born-and-raised progressive now bewildered by the intellectual/philosophical decomposition of
The biggest logic problem I have is that Brooks treats survey data and behavioral data as equally significant. He keeps citing surveys (“57 percent of Americans said they volunteered”) as if they had the same significance as actual documented activity (e.g. how different states compare on the amount of charitable giving reported on tax returns). That’s just silly -- people aren’t always completely honest on surveys, and survey responses can be heavily influenced by how the question is phrased. The strongest use of survey data for analysis is when a variety of surveys all point the same way and Brooks at times seems to get that, but at a lot of points he just quotes a single survey as if it could prove some point or other all by itself.
Also Brooks frequently confuses correlation with causation, hardly an uncommon problem of course but he does it persistently. Another problem is that while Brooks says that he set out to just analyze and report the true facts about philanthropy in America not to “promote some broad-based political agenda”, that is obviously untrue. He goes off on extended tangential riffs about things like the welfare system and tax policy and other issues. On some issues I tend to agree with him on other things not, but that’s really not the point. Moreover his arguments on those subjects are no more compelling than are the cliches about charity which his book is ostensibly aimed at (that is, nobody who doesn’t already see economic politics his way is going to be persuaded by anything he’s written).
All of that tends to undermine his credibility about the immediate subject, charitable giving. So overall I’d have to say that this book, as a book, is kind of a mess. It doesn’t really deserve to be called a “study” of charitable giving in the
With all that said…mixed in there is a lot of interesting actual data about individual philanthropy in the U.S., and Brooks earns kudos for providing a full appendix listing and describing all his data sources. So over the weekend I’ll summarize what folks in the non-profit sector might want to think about, which can be extracted from the interesting and well-sourced facts buried within this flabby book.