Philanthropy is the act of giving money or other assets to help people or causes. It can be done by individuals or corporations, and it can take many forms, including donations of cash or other assets, volunteer work, scholarships and community investments. The word philanthropy comes from the Greek words for “love of mankind” and “brotherhood.”
Despite its noble purpose, philanthropy is often misunderstood. Many think it transfers wealth from the rich to the poor, but this is not always the case. In fact, in the United States, which is one of the most philanthropic nations in the world, less than a fifth of the money donated by big givers goes to help the poor. Much of it goes to things like sports teams and the arts, while half goes to education and health care.
The earliest forms of philanthropy were religious. For example, ancient Egyptian rulers and noblemen gave monetary allowances to the poor as part of their religious duties. Some ancient societies practiced a form of philanthropy called tithing, wherein they donated a tenth of their income. Later, philanthropy became more of a political tool. People who favored particular ideas or political parties supported organizations that promoted them.
The 19th century was a time of reform for philanthropy. Charity reformers worried that too many people gave for sentimental reasons and didn’t consider how their gifts might affect the poor. They urged philanthropic institutions to focus on social change and teach the poor how to help themselves. They also increased the importance of accountability in philanthropy (ibid).
In the 1960s and 1970s, government budget cuts led to an increase in demand for philanthropic services. Nonprofit organizations took on more of the burden of providing basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing. However, they were unable to meet the growing demand, leading to an increasing reliance on private donors. The economic crisis of the 1980s made it clear that individual donors could not replace government funding for philanthropic activities. This led to an emphasis on the role of individuals in philanthropy and a push for increased accountability for foundations (ibid).
Today, anyone can become a philanthropist, regardless of their wealth. Some famous philanthropists include Dorothea Dix, who worked to improve the treatment of the mentally ill, and Cotton Mather, who wrote about how to better the lives of ordinary citizens in colonial America. Even companies can become philanthropists by encouraging employees to volunteer for nonprofits and offering matching donations. But the most important thing to remember about philanthropy is that it isn’t just about giving money, it’s about making a difference with your time and energy as well. That’s why it’s important to find a cause that speaks to you. Don’t be afraid to get creative with your philanthropy; it can make all the difference. —Sarah Bremner, Senior Editor, Nonprofit Quarterly.