What Does Philanthropy Mean to You?

Read to the end for your chance to win a book from the Tactical Philanthropy Bookstore or a gift to your favorite nonprofit.

In their fascinating study “I’m Not Rockefeller,” The Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania showed that most high net worth philanthropists (defined in the study as people who gave over $1 million a year) said they did not identify with the word “philanthropist.”

So my question to you is what words do you identify with what is generally referred to as “philanthropy”? A couple to get things rolling:

  • Impact
  • Inspiration
  • Giving
  • Community
  • Social
  • Good
  • Charity
  • Mission

I’d love to get your thoughts. Frankly, I’m open to made up words! Given my post from earlier suggesting that philanthropy is a blend of art and science, I’m interested particularly in words that manage to capture the multi-dimensional meaning of philanthropy.

From the suggestions that are submitted via a comment to this post, I’ll pick a winning entry and you can pick a book from the Tactical Philanthropy Bookstore as your prize or I’ll make a $25 gift to the nonprofit of your choice.


  1. According to Bob Payton, philanthropy is voluntary action for the public good.

    AFP defined is as love of humankind.

    I think it’s a combination of the following
    – faith
    – trust
    – listening
    – understanding
    – empathy
    – the point when introspection meets circumspection

  2. Amy Neumann says:

    The word “philanthropy” feels to me a bit like charity that’s too big for the average person. So, I prefer “volunteering” and “passion for helping”. It can mean introducing people to each other who care about similar things, asking people about their favorite charity/passion in conversations, or simply smiling more and being more patient. All pretty easy. Easier than “philanthropy” sometimes connotates.;) Everyone has a little Philanthropist in them, and we all express it differently.

  3. Dave, great list. Empathy is an important one. Amy, thanks. Philanthropy does seem like an unapproachable word doesn’t it? The report I noted said that even people giving over $1 million a year felt the same way!

  4. Hi Sean,

    What an insightful question! I read this post just before going for a walk with my son (He’s 24)and we discussed it for the major part of the walk.

    It seems to us that most people who make a contribution over $1 Million have a strong connection to that organization. They usually don’t think of it so much as charity as an investment in the future. For example, they would like someone else to have the same opportunity as they did or did not have (frequent motivators in health and education).

    I am always disappointed that human services for the poor don’t tend to get these contributions. But I think that it is both the lack of personal connection and not seeing it as an investment in the future that hold back these charities. I really think this is the paradigm that needs to be adddressed for human services nonprofits.

    Another name for “philanthropists:”

    “Investors” in the future or for something humorous they can join the “League of Mission Accomplished.”


  5. Erinn says:

    In my experience, Philanthropy is the measure of a person’s commitment to their community. It is executed in many different ways from volunteering valuable time to contributing funds, depending on the means of the individual. Regardless, no service agency could survive without these gifts.

    I believe it is a combination of the following:
    – Belief in the Common Good
    – Purpose
    – Duty
    – Responsibility
    – Pay it Forward
    – Empathy
    – Trust in Community
    – Optimism
    – Hope

    Hope this helps!

  6. Ninad Gujar says:

    Great points Amy. It’s not all about money; we also need to work.

  7. Jeff Trexler says:

    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!

  8. Emily says:

    I think the biggest distinction in my mind between philanthropy and charity, for example, is innovation.

    Philanthropy to me feels like a departure from a simple transfer of dollars from those who have some to those who have less. I associate it with innovation because it adapts to changing needs and hopes to change the paradigm causing harm. Philanthropy compels itself through a market-like supply and demand to get better at what it does, and to find more efficient ways to effect change.

  9. Michele says:

    It’s a big word, with a simple origin. To love people. There’s no need to put the word out of business, just to increase people’s relation to it – and make it accessible. Giving time, money, and voice.

    As folks in the field, we need not to overcomplicate it for the public. It’s more effective when it isn’t just jargon.

    A bit tongue in cheek, but my favorite slogan for philanthropy this week “It’s Irrational”. Would be great on a t-shirt.

  10. I spend a chapter in my new book on the differences — subtle and not so subtle — between “giving,” “charity,” and “philanthropy.”

    I tend to use the term “changemaking” as it incorporates goal, action, and noticeable result.

    Hope Penn didn’t waste a whole lot of time, money and energy on this study. 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!).

    P.S. I’m so pleased that AFP knows enough Greek and Latin to use the translation of “philanthropos” for its definition.

    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. “Changemaking” also removes the monetary component in the common understanding of “philanthropy.”

    For, by its true meaning, one can DEFINITELY be a philanthropist without having or giving a lot of money — or am I wrong?

    Renata Rafferty

  11. Stephen says:

    To me, as someone from a recipient charity, a philanthropist is someone who gives of their money or their time without having a reason to do so. Often anonymously without needing publicity that many do crave.

    It’s about being generous. Giving for the sake of giving without condition or reservation; only knowing that the donation will make a difference to the receiver or organisation. There is an inherent feelgood factor in play for both parties involved in the philanthropy.

  12. Maureen says:

    I like to think of philanthropy as putting money where your heart is. I guess I still connect with the word strictly in terms of financial assistance. It doesn’t seem to fit with a more holistic approach.

  13. Mindy says:

    On a purely technical level, philanthropy is a combination of a variety of giving methods such as annual campaigns, major gifts, and so on.

    But, I think to be a philanthropist means so much more that just writing a check. It is more than just giving for the sake of giving. Philanthropy is finding a mission that tugs at your heart strings, a mission that moves you.

    As an individual, I do not necessarily think that I can be a catalyst for change, but there are organizations striving to make a difference in the causes I care about. Philanthropy is finding those causes and helping them as they try to make a difference. There is a hope for a better world and a belief that world is possible. It may be a bit of starry-eyed idealism, but perhaps that is what our world needs.

    Gandhi once said “be the change you wish to see in the world” and I think to be a philanthropist is taking one small step in the direction of being that change. I cannot do it on my own, but my giving to the organizations I support, I am helping them on their journey of change.

  14. Sandy Rees says:

    Philanthropy is about giving, pure and simple. It’s the desire to give to help someone else without expecting anything in return. It comes from a heart full of joy and compassion, and a desire to make the world a better place.

  15. My late friend and colleague Herb Kaplan introduced me to “tzedakah,” the Hebrew word for the acts we call charity. The root of tzedakah means righteousness, justice or fairness. Herb and I shared that belief in the power and obligation of philanthropy. For me, charity has always been about justice.

    “Give until it feels good” was Herb’s answer to anyone who asked him “how much should I give?”

  16. There’s an interesting opinion piece in last week’s CSM called “Obama vs. the culture of greed”. Maybe the point of that article is even better captured in a buddhist saying: poverty exists because wealth exists. To me, philanthropy is one means of rebalancing resources to widen the reach of prosperity.

  17. And the winner is…

    Dave Tinker & Erinn for the word “empathy” (Jeff Trexler, keep reading)! They both win either one of the books from the Tactical Philanthropy Bookstore or $25 for their favorite nonprofit (Dave & Erinn, just email me to claim your prize).

    Remember, I was looking for specific words that convened the multidimensional meaning of philanthropy. Empathy implies an intellectual understanding of another persons emotions.

    But Jeff Trexler really nailed the dilemma that the word philanthropy faces and explained better than I did why a new word is needed. But he didn’t suggest a word!

    So Jeff, if you can give us a word that captures the new role of “philanthropy” you can still qualify to win the prize!

    Thanks for playing everyone!

  18. Autumn says:

    Great post, Sean! I’m late on this but wanted to add my thoughts and also to thank you for the Rockefeller mention 🙂

    In my opinion, philanthropy is art because when you give you are fulfilling a need to create. It’s the creative principle in monetary form. But it doesn’t have to mean just money. When I volunteer my time, I’m giving my heart and labor to a cause I believe in or to a candidate that I feel is worthy of the people.

    Because money is so necessary for survival, especially in these hard economic conditions, philanthropy must extend beyond just good intentions and love of humanity or cause. Generosity must also be regulated and monitored at times to make sure that donated resources are getting to the people that need it the most. Making informed giving decisions can truly make a huge difference not only for those in need but also for the agents involved in delivering the “goods.”

    My two cents 🙂

  19. Renata, sorry your comments went into the spam filter. Great points. Changemaker is a good word for a certain set of people. But I don’t think that everyone who gives does so to create change. We need a broader term.

    I like the word Impact as it relates to philanthropy. Within institutional philanthropy the word is bordering on jargon. But high net worth donors are not familiar with it. Could Impactmaker ever catch on?

    I think that the context that you and Jeff give to the history of the word suggest that we definitely need a new word.

    Think about the role of “philanthropy advisor to high net worth donors”. Well if high net worth donors don’t think of themselves as philanthropists they are not going to think they need advice on philanthropy! So what is the word that captures what they do?

  20. Autumn,

    Hank Rosso always said that fundraising is helping others in the careful art of giving. This certainly continues to be true today and something I think about often.