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Philanthropy (from Greek ) means etymologically, the love of humanity, in the sense of caring and nourishing, it involves both the benefactor in their identifying and exercising their values, and the beneficiary in their receipt and benefit from the service or goods provided. A conventional modern definition is "private initiatives, for the public good, focusing on quality of life," which combines an original humanistic tradition with a social scientific aspect developed in the 20th century. The definition also serves to contrast philanthropy with business endeavors, which are private initiatives for private good, e.g., focusing on material gain, and with government endeavors, which are public initiatives for public good, e.g., focusing on provision of public services. A person who practices philanthropy is called a philanthropist.

Philanthropy has distinguishing characteristics separate from charity; not all charity is philanthropy, or vice versa, though there is a recognized degree of overlap in practice. A difference commonly cited is that charity aims to relieve the pain of a particular social problem, whereas philanthropy attempts to address the root cause of the problem—the difference between the proverbial gift of a fish to a hungry person, versus teaching them how to fish.


clearly sourced definitions of the term from the most important texts in use at leading academic programs on philanthropy (e.g., IU, CUNY, Duke, etc.), and at the most important major philanthropic organisations

The most conventional modern definition, according to the Catalogue for Philanthropy, is "private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life". This combines the social scientific aspect developed in the century with the original humanistic tradition, and serves to contrast philanthropy with business (private initiatives for private good, focusing on material prosperity) and government (public initiatives for public good, focusing on law and order). These distinctions have been analyzed by Olivier Zunz, and others.


In the first century BCE, both paideia and philanthrôpía were translated into Latin by the single word humanity, which was also understood to be the core of liberal education study humanities, the studies of humanity, or simply "the humanities." In the second century CE, Plutarch used the concept of philanthrôpía to describe superior human beings. This Classically synonymous troika, of philanthropy, the humanities, and liberal education, declined with the replacement of the classical world by Christianity. During the Middle Ages, philanthrôpía was superseded by Caritas charity, selfless love, valued for salvation. Philanthropy was modernized by Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600s, who is largely credited with preventing the word from being owned by horticulture. Bacon considered philanthrôpía to be synonymous with "goodness", which correlated with the Aristotelian conception of virtue, as consciously instilled habits of good behavior. Then in the 1700s, an influential lexical figurehead by the name of Samuel Johnson simply defined philanthropy as "love of mankind; good nature". This definition still survives today and is often cited more gender-neutrally as the "love of humanity." However, it was Noah Webster who would more accurately reflect the word usage in American English.

Modern philanthropy

In London prior to the 18th century, parochial and civic charities were typically established by posthumous bequests and operated by local church parises (such as St Dionis Backchurch) or guilds (such as the Carpenters' Company). During the 18th century, however, "a more activist and explicitly Protestant tradition of direct charitable engagement during life" took hold, exemplified by the creation of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and Societies for the Reformation of Manners.

In 1739, Captain Thomas Coram, appalled by the number of abandoned children living on the streets of London, received a royal charter to establish the Foundling Hospital to look after these unwanted orphans in Lamb's Conduit Fields, Bloomsbury. This was "the first children's charity in the country, and one that 'set the pattern for incorporated associational charities' in general." The hospital "marked the first great milestone in the creation of these new-style charities."

Jonas Hanway, another notable philanthropist of the era, established The Marine Society in 1756 as the first seafarer's charity, in a bid to aid the recruitment of men to the navy. By 1763, the society had recruited over 10,000 men and it was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1772. Hanway was also instrumental in establishing the Magdalen Hospital to rehabilitate prostitutes. These organizations were funded by subscription and run as voluntary associations. They raised public awareness of their activities through the emerging popular press and were generally held in high social regard—some charities received state recognition in the form of the Royal Charter.

Philanthropists, such as anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, began to adopt active campaigning roles, where they would champion a cause and lobby the government for legislative change. This included organized campaigns against the ill treatment of animals and children and the campaign that eventually succeeded in ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century.

During the 19th century, a profusion of charitable organizations was set up to alleviate the awful conditions of the working class in the slums. The Labourer's Friend Society, chaired by Lord Shaftesbury in the United Kingdom in 1830, was set up to improve working class conditions. This included the promotion of allotment of land to labourers for "cottage husbandry" that later became the allotment movement, and in 1844 it became the first Model Dwellings Company—an organization that sought to improve the housing conditions of the working classes by building new homes for them, while at the same time receiving a competitive rate of return on any investment. This was one of the first housing associations, a philanthropic endeavor that flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century, brought about by the growth of the middle class. Later associations included the Peabody Trust, and the Guinness Trust. The principle of philanthropic intention with capitalist return was given the label "five per cent philanthropy."

In 1863, the Swiss businessman Henry Dunant used his personal fortune to finding the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, which became the International Committee of the Red Cross. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Dunant personally led Red Cross delegations that treated soldiers. He shared the first Nobel Peace Prize for this work in 1901.

Philanthropy became a very fashionable activity among the expanding middle classes in Britain and America. Octavia Hill and John Ruskin were an important force behind the development of social housing and Andrew Carnegie exemplified the large-scale philanthropy of the newly rich in industrialized America. In Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie wrote about the responsibilities of great wealth and the importance of social justice. He established public libraries throughout the English-speaking countries as well as contributing large sums to schools and universities. Other American philanthropists of the early 20th century were John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford. The sheer size of their endowments directed their attention to addressing the causes and instruments, as distinct from the symptoms and expressions, of social problems and cultural opportunities.

21st century efforts

Studies by The Chronicle of Philanthropy have indicated that the rich—those making over $100,000 a year—give a smaller share of their income to charity (4.2% on average) than those making $50,000–$100,000 a year.

Trends in philanthropy have been affected in various ways by a technological and cultural change. Today, many donations are made through the Internet (see also donation statistics).

Organizations supporting

further coverage of modern extant organizations that have long histories of studying philanthropy and analyzing its societal roles—such as the CUNY and Duke efforts pioneered in the 80s, remnants of the Rockefeller-funded postwar Japanese efforts, etc., see Talk—I'm with concomitant reduction of space for the Lilly School (and reigning it of its clear advert-style partiality)

A variety of organizations that have been created over the decades to study, support, and evaluate practical philanthropic endeavors and ideas exist today and continue research into philanthropy, analysis of its trends, and student-training for its occupations and further study.

Further reading

The following are suggested articles for further reading, in particular, reputable sources with an emphasis on material that might improve the content of the article. The format used is intended to make each citation reference-ready.

Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence For a Psychological Universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology "This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: Human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). …survey data from 136 countries were examined and showed that prosocial spending is associated with greater happiness around the world, in poor and rich countries alike. …recalling a past instance of prosocial spending has a causal impact on happiness across countries that differ greatly in terms of wealth (Canada, Uganda, and India). …participants in Canada and South Africa randomly assigned to buy items for charity reported higher levels of positive affect than participants assigned to buy the same items for themselves, even… [without] an opportunity to build or strengthen social ties. Our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts."

Philanthropy in America, A History: Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America

On the Classical Meaning of Philanthrôpía Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly [Citation originally appeared attached to the Scottish Enlightenment in the "Modern philanthropy" section, but is clearly, rather, associated with material of the "Classical… " section.]

Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. "Although much research has examined the effect of income on happiness, we suggest that how people spend their money may be at least as important as how much money they earn. Specifically, we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one's income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves. [Erratum in Science. 2009 May 29;324(5931):1143.]"

Promethean Fire: The Archetype (Chapter I) Philanthropy Reconsidered: Private Initiatives, Public Good, Quality of Life (A Catalogue for Philanthropy Publication) "Chapter I subtitle: From its first coinage in ancient Greece, in Prometheus Bound, philanthropic meant "the love of humanity," or of what it is to be human, an educational and cultural ideal." [Citation originally appeared attached to the Scottish Enlightenment in the "Modern philanthropy" section, but is clearly, rather, associated with material of the "Classical… " section. (Appears likely to be the un-cited source for the "Definitions" section and led content and for the "Classical… " section.)]

Money: Families Wrestle With Closing Foundations "Wealthy families are setting up new philanthropic foundations in increasing numbers, but they are also shutting them down at an accelerating pace. / Some of the biggest names in philanthropy are backing the idea of setting a time limit on their giving: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced in December it will spend its entire endowment… within 50 years of the death of the last of its three current trustees, then close its doors."

The Concept of Philanthropia in Plutarch's Lives [Citation originally appeared attached to the Scottish Enlightenment in the "Modern philanthropy" section, but is clearly, rather, associated with material of the "Classical… " section.]

Lester's History of the United States: Illustrated in Its Five Great Periods: Colonization, Consolidation, Development, Achievement, Advancement

The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: The Ideology of Philanthropy

See also Concepts Annual giving Benefactor (law) Challenge grant Charity (practice) Charity evaluators Crowdfunding Data philanthropy Effective altruism The Giving Pledge Grant (money) Impact Investing Foundation (nonprofit)

Foundation (United States law)

Fundraising High impact philanthropy Humanitarianism Micro-donating Misanthropy Philanthropinism Open Philanthropy

Philanthropy in the United States

Social work Social enterprise Social finance Venture philanthropy Organizations and institutions Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Council on Foundations European Foundation Centre Foundation Center Philanthropy Journal Philanthropy Roundtable Philanthropists List of philanthropists References External links

Muslim Philanthropy Digital Library open-source library managed by the research program at the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo

Voluntary Action History Society, Various research into the history of charity, philanthropy and voluntary organisations, Joseph and Matthew Payton Philanthropic Studies Library, Philanthropic Studies Index, History of Philanthropy, 1601–present compiled and edited by National Philanthropic Trust, "A Bourgeois Duty: Philanthropy, 1896-1919" — Illustrated historical essay, PDF file from the Hudson Institute at The Index of Global Philanthropy 2006 83 page., Philanthropy Resources Online, Center for High Impact Philanthropy in the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2)



Jump to Navigation Main menu Charity Search About Us Book Blog Discoveries Donate Contact What is Philanthropy?

This article summarizes research done by the

Catalogue for Philanthropy.

For more details, see our book

, Philanthropy Reconsidered (2008).

"Philanthropy" is one of the most profound and influential ideas in the history of Western thought, originating 2500 years ago, and as of recently interacting with two cultures: the first, which is humanistic, initiated and defined the long mainstream tradition; the second, which is social-scientific, arose in the 20th century and has tended to ignore that tradition. The latter is still dominant today, though the original humanism is now being revived. The

Catalogue for Philanthropy

has advocated a balance between the two, for their mutual benefit.

Accordingly, " Philanthropy

" is best defined as "

private initiatives , for public good

..." (the social-science aspect), "...focusing on

quality of life

" (the humanistic aspect). Thus John Gardner’s "private initiatives for the public good," Robert Payton’s "voluntary action for the public good," Lester Salamon’s "the private giving of time or valuables…for public purposes," and Robert Bremner’s "the aim of philanthropy…is improvement in the quality of human life," may be combined to connect modern philanthropy with its entire previous history.

This distinguishes it from government (public initiatives for public good) and business (private initiatives for private good). Omitting the definite article "the" with "public good" avoids the dubious assumption that there is ever a single, knowable public good, and in any case people rarely if ever agree on what that might be; rather, this definition merely says that the benefactor intends a "public" rather than an exclusively "private" good or benefit. The inclusion of "quality of life" ensures the strong humanistic emphasis of the word's original coinage.

The first recorded use of the word was in line 11 of the ca.460 BCE Greek play,

Prometheus Bound

, long attributed to Aeschylus. There the titan Prometheus had created mankind out of clay, but his creatures at first had no culture—no knowledge, skills, arts, science, technology, etc.—so they lived in darkness, in caves, in constant fear for their lives. Zeus, the tyrannical king of the gods, who resented Prometheus‘ equivalent of "private initiative," decided to kill them. But Prometheus, out of his

philanthropos tropos

, or "humanity-loving character," gave them two gifts: fire, symbolizing all culture (arts, sciences, knowledge, technology, etc.), and "blind hope," or optimism. They were mutually reinforcing—with fire, mankind could be optimistic; with optimism, fire would be put to good use, to improve the human condition.

What exactly did Prometheus "love"? Certainly not his creatures individually, nor as a group of individuals, because at that mythical point in time before the existence of any culture, there could be no individuality. What he "loved"—in the sense of cherishing, caring for, nourishing, and developing it—was human potential, what humans could make for and of themselves, given "fire" and "blind hope." Prometheus' name meant "Foresight" which all benefactors have, but at that time only he and his Mother, Earth, had it. What he foresaw, and in this crucial instance "loved," was what the play was asserting to be the essence of "humanity"—"what it is to be human": namely, the capacities we all have to improve ourselves and our conditions through "fire" and "blind hope".

That, at any rate, is how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood it. What the playwright was seeking to explain, in reworking this myth from Hesiod's earlier version, was the nature and origin of civilization—a topic of special interest in Athens at that time because that was where and when Western civilization was itself being born, in philosophy, art, literature, science, history and mathematics. The play asserted that civilization arose from a mythic "love of what it is to be human"—"All the arts come from Prometheus." (lines 505-6). There is an intentional redundancy here, that Prometheus' philanthropic gift to humankind was philanthropy itself, the essential purpose of which was to improve the human condition by further "loving" "what it is to be human." In effect, Prometheus' philanthropy endowed humans with the capacity to be philanthropic themselves. The "public good" sought was the improvement of the human condition, by endowing humans with the capacity to complete their own creation—to improve themselves and their ways of life, through education and civilization. What was being asserted here was that the attribute (


) of loving what it is to be human (


) is fundamentally who we are, and ought to be, as human beings. By endowing us with this attribute, Prometheus was completing and fulfilling his (and our) creation. The Platonic Academy's philosophical dictionary listed "


" as: "A state of well-educated habits, stemming from love of humanity. A state of being productive of benefit to humans. A state of grace. Mindfulness together with good works."

Because Prometheus' philanthropy constituted a rebellion against Zeus' tyranny, for which he was severely punished, it came also to be associated by the Greeks with freedom and democracy. "Philanthropic and democratic" became a common tag—both Socrates and the laws of Athens were later referred to as being "philanthropic and democratic." The idea was that philanthropic humans can be entrusted with the power of government, and will be capable of governing themselves.

It is significant that "


" was coined not as a noun referring to the gift, nor as a verb referring to the act of giving, but as an adjective, describing the


of the benefactor—his personal or cultural values. One of the earliest uses of the noun form,


, was in an early Socratic dialogue (


, 390 BCE), in which Socrates himself says that "pouring out" his thoughts to his listeners, "without pay," is his

philanthropía .

The synonymy of education and culture with "loving what it is to be human" was immediately grasped by the Greeks. They conceived of education as self-development toward


, or excellence, the perfection of all our resources of body, mind, and spirit, to make us more fully and effectively all that we can be as human beings. Their word for culture as purportedly ennobling education was


(as in "encyclopedia," from "


" or universal, and "


" learning)—which was the essential core of liberal education as it was Classically conceived. Proving this entire argument is the fact that both

paideia and philanthropía

were later translated into Latin as one word:

humanitas .

With the fall of the Roman Empire, this humanistic, cultural, understanding of philanthropy went underground, and hibernated, as it were, for a thousand years in forgotten manuscripts of medieval monastic libraries. It was revived with Renaissance humanism, and informed Pico della Mirandola's famous 15th-century

Oration on the Dignity of Man

. The word entered English in the early 17th century: Sir Francis Bacon, in his essay "On Goodness" (1608), defined it as "the affecting of the weale of men, what the Grecians call


." Sir Henry Cockeram in his first English Dictionary (1623) used "philanthropie" as a synonym for "humanitie," in the Classical sense.

But what does this Classical history have to do with us today in modern America? As it turns out, a great deal. (For a full discussion, see

Philanthropy Reconsidered

, Chapter 2: "Philanthropy's Finest Hour: the American Revolution.") At that same time, in the early seventeenth century, the Classical conceptualization of philanthropy came to America with the English colonists. Here there was a new historical situation, in which Europeans had to create their own new society in a wilderness. Land was plentiful and cheap, so labor was scarce and dear, and in any case they had no cash to pay for labor. Thus every major project—from barn-raising to building roads, churches, schools, hospitals, civic buildings, fire departments, everything —had to be done by volunteers. Over the next 150 years, a culture of collaboration arose, in which as Alexis de Tocqueville later observed, "voluntary associations"—which is to say "private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life"— abounded, for every conceivable public purpose. This, he said, was a key to the rise of "democracy in America"!

As an idea and value, "philanthropy" was a central ethical precept of the Enlightenment, considered to be so essential in human nature as to be the key to human happiness and well-being. From the Scottish Enlightenment in particular it was channeled into the thought of many of our Founding Fathers.

On both conceptual and practical levels, then, philanthropy gained significant cultural influence in colonial America. It is notable that in the American colonies, philanthropy was more about volunteering than about monetary donations—two leading examples of this are Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere, both of whom wrote that their lives had been shaped as youths by reading Cotton Mather's popular tract of 1710,

Bonifacius, An Essay to Do Good


A philanthropic precursor of the American Revolution occurred in 1747, when Franklin privately assumed a public responsibility to keep the peace in Pennsylvania because the Quaker (pacifist) government was failing to act. Using his newspaper

The Philadelphia Gazette

,Franklin raised a volunteer army of 10,000 men and £6,000 to solve the problem. As the son of William Penn observed, "That is a dangerous man—if he can do this without us, he can do it against us." The signers of the Declaration of Independence were private citizens, pledging

to each other

their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. The Declaration itself was addressed to all mankind. The Minutemen, Paul Revere's riders, the Sons of Liberty, the Revolutionary Army were all voluntary associations. General Washington insisted on serving as a volunteer, "

pro bono publico

" and he used to sign his letters "Philanthropically yours." Several major unprecedented features of our early government were modeled on voluntary associations—the people (members) as the constituent power; launching a nation with a philanthropic mission statement; addressing it to all mankind; and focusing government on quality of life.

Thus Alexander Hamilton, in the first paragraph, first page, of the first Federalist Paper, launching the Founders' argument for ratification of the Constitution, noted that "It is commonly remarked" that Americans are at a new place in history: whereas previously governments had been products of accident and force, Americans could now choose their own form of government. "This," he wrote, "

adds the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism

." He was not talking about rich people helping poor people, but about "private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life." The United States of America was thus conceived and dedicated to be a philanthropic nation, a gift to all mankind, to enhance the human condition through freedom and democracy—a new "fire," inspired with a new "blind hope"—squarely in the Promethean tradition.

The Classical view of philanthropy in America dissipated in the course of the 19th century, as new and profound changes transformed our nation and Classical education declined. Around the turn of the 20th century philanthropy also took a new turn, as great titans of industry who were creating huge new fortunes—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford

et al.

—established major philanthropic foundations. These institutions introduced new approaches to charitable giving, among which was purportedly to aim their grants at the causes rather than the symptoms of social ills. This strategic approach was promulgated and sustained by men trained in the social sciences, who thought they were bringing those sciences to bear in social engineering.

Over the course of the 20th century, these same foundations also sought to professionalize philanthropy, to make it technically more sophisticated. By the end of the century professional staffs of foundations and charities were dominated by people trained in the social sciences. They tended to think in terms of group behavior, to focus on technical and procedural issues, using IRS and census data gathered by social scientists for governmental purposes. They saw society as composed of three sectors: government, business, and a third anomalous sector that is neither of those—it is tax-exempt, non-government, non-profit (meaning that it has no


profits). Their regulative ideal was "civil society"—a theoretical and societal abstraction, rather than a personal and educational or cultural value, speaking more to academic scholars, than personally to donors and volunteers.

The term "nonprofit" arose in the last quarter of the 20th century. It originated in the IRS and came to refer to the entire "third sector," including charities. Its first use (these numbers were kindly provided in personal communication by Peter Dobkin Hall) in the

New York Times

was 1915, in a story on the first congressional investigation of foundations. Its first use in a book title was 1937, for a government census of businesses. Its first use in a social-science doctoral dissertation title or abstract was 1959. There were 7 such uses in the '60s, 49 in the '70s, 238 in the '80s. It was not used commonly as a noun until the '80s, and became associated in that form with philanthropic charities, which is factually incorrect and expansively beside the point—there are over 42,000 "nonprofits" in Massachusetts, but we have found that fewer than one in ten of those are philanthropic charities of general interest to donors, eligible for listing in this


The word "philanthropy" for its part, was almost never used by the end of the 20th century. Foundations occasionally used it about themselves, though they provided only 10% of the private dollars in charitable giving. Fundraisers, at the interface of the sector with donors, referred not to philanthropy as a whole, but to their individual-charity employers. When we launched the

Catalogue for Philanthropy

in 1997, we were urged not to use the word because it was "pedantic," "pompous" and "nobody knows what it means." Instead, most professionals advising us preferred the

"Catalogue for Giving" .

That is how great ideas die, and we were simply lucky to have chosen the right word, which ten years later had entered the American vernacular—celebrity philanthropy having attracted enough media attention to popularize it.

Of course people still don't know what it means, which helps to explain why the

Massachusetts Philanthropic Directory

is working to revive its proper Classical and humanistic emphasis, and to provide hard evidence as to why the term "nonprofit" must now be expunged from the philanthropic lexicon. The fact is, no one defends the use of that term for philanthropy on any other ground than that it is conventional, and hopeless to change. We shall see.

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