This article identifies a number of parallels between nineteenth-century philanthropy and contemporary social work that have so far received little attention in the ongoing debate on the relation between philanthropy and modern welfare. While adopting a critical perspective on social philanthropy, it does not take a definitive stance on the question of whether philanthropy cements marginality or constitutes a progressive agent for social change. Philanthropy's role in social policy can hardly be generalized across time and space; instead, its strategic functions must be examined in specific societies and at specific historical junctures. For this purpose the question of the relationship between philanthropy and modern welfare is re-formulated using Foucault's concept of ‘dispositive’. A series of decisive inventions that emerged from nineteenth-century poor relief are identified. Most importantly, the philanthropists gave twentieth-century social policy a recipient who is not a subject of formal rights, but possesses a series of social duties and responsibilities.