A few days ago I asked readers what “philanthropy” meant to you. In the post I cited a Center for High Impact Philanthropy study that showed that even donors who give over $1 million a year do not think of themselves as “philanthropists”. My sense is that philanthropy is a word that use to have powerful meaning, but which no longer resonates with the vast majority of donors. Words have power and what some is called (or calls themselves) can change their behavior. I wonder if we need to find a new word to replace “philanthropist” if we want individual donors to embrace a proactive, engaged, strategic approach to their giving.
Words like New Philanthropy, Philanthropy 2.0 or even Venture Philanthropy have been used as shorthand to label the behaviors and approaches to philanthropy that are currently in vogue. But calling some “new” X or X 2.0 is a lazy way to label something. For instance, “social media” is a far more powerful label than “web 2.0” because social media is descriptive and captures the differentiating element of the “new web”.
In response to my question to readers last week, Jeff Trexler offered this explanation for why the word “philanthropy” has lost meaning:
One reason why the word “philanthropy” may no longer resonate is that it is a word out of its time. A few hundred years ago, using a Greek derivative to convey a regard for humanity had ethical, philosophical and class connotations that are now all but lost. The narrowing of the term by the late 19th century reflects, in part, a subtle mode of legitimizing new mercantile and industrial wealth by associating it with the language of the educated elite. In short, the cultural factors that gave the word a distinct valence have long since receded, leave us with a term that has relatively weak signaling value.
Another factor contributing to the term’s apparent fade is the growing perceived incoherence of segregating charity–and in particular, the act of making charitable donations–from other forms of social benefit. This in turn reflects broader trends in cultural convergence that break down artificial divisions in both concepts and social class.
In this context, perhaps rather than shoring up the definition of philanthropy we may want to consider retiring the word altogether!
Renata Rafferty offered a similar point:
Any of us who work with rich people who give a lot of it to charity know that those folks never use the word “philanthropist” to describe themselves.
It’s a word the media put into vogue years ago when trying to establish nomenclature for members of the society set who gave lots of money to charity, but who had no precise “job” or title in the for-profit world which could be used as an ‘identifier’ when writing a story.
That is, a “philanthropist” was understood to be a “mogul” or “tycoon” (or the wife of a mogul or tycoon’s) who gave lots of money — and usually very publicly — to charity.
So, no, the high-net-worth do not use the term “philanthropist” to describe themselves any more than they use terms like “mogul,” “tycoon,” or even “rich” (how gauche!).
Back to the original question — few persons seem to have a problem with stating that they want to make change in the community or in the world… I tend to use the term “changemaking” as it incorporates goal, action, and noticeable result… “Changemaking” also removes the monetary component in the common understanding of “philanthropy.”
What if we wanted to propagate a new label to designate people who gave money in an effective, strategic, engaged way? What would it be?