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Philanthropy is the effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations.


It is generally agreed that the word was coined 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, by the playwright Aeschylus, or whom ever else wrote Prometheus Bound (line 11). There the author told as a myth how the primitive creatures that were created to be human, at first had no knowledge, skills, or culture of any kind—so they lived in caves, in the dark, in constant fear for their lives. Zeus, the tyrannical king of the gods, decided to destroy them, but Prometheus, a Titan whose name meant “forethought,” out of his "philanthropos tropos" or “humanity-loving character” gave them two empowering, life-enhancing, gifts: fire, symbolizing all knowledge, skills, technology, arts, and science; and “blind hope” or optimism. The two went together—with fire, humans could be optimistic; with optimism, they could use fire constructively, to improve the human condition.

The new word, philanthropos, combined two words: philos, or “loving” in the sense of benefitting, caring for, nourishing; and anthropos— “humankind”, “humanity”, or “human-ness”. Prometheus did not “love” the proto-humans individually, because at that mythical point in time individuality did not yet exist—that requires culture. What he evidently “loved”, therefore, was their human potential—what they could accomplish and become with “fire” and “blind hope”. The two gifts in effect completed the creation of humankind as a distinctly civilized animal. Philanthropia—loving what it is to be human—was thought to be the key to civilization.

The Greeks adopted the “love of humanity” as an educational ideal, whose goal was excellence (areté)—the fullest development of body, mind and spirit, which is the essence of liberal education. The Platonic Academymarker's philosophical dictionary defined Philanthropia as: “A state of well-educated habits stemming from love of humanity. A state of being productive of benefit to humans.” Philanthropia was later translated by the Romans into Latin as, simply, humanitas—humane-ness. And because Prometheus’ human-empowering gifts rebelled against Zeus’ tyranny, philanthropia was also associated with freedom and democracy. Both Socrates and the laws of Athens were described as “philanthropic and democratic”—a common expression, the idea being that philanthropic humans are reliably capable of self-government.

Putting all this together in modern terms, there are four relatively authoritative definitions of “philanthropy” that come close to the Classical concept: John W. 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”. Combining these to connect modern philanthropy with its entire previous history, “philanthropy” may best be defined as, “private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life.”

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 Promethean archetype.

The Classical view of philanthropy disappeared in the Middle Ages, was rediscovered and revived with the Renaissance, and came into the English language in the early 17th century. Sir Francis Bacon in 1592 wrote in a letter that his “vast contemplative ends” expressed his “philanthropia”, and his 1608 essay On Goodness defined his subject as “the affecting of the weale of men... what the Grecians call philanthropia.” Henry Cockeram, in his English dictionary (1623), cited “philanthropie” as a synonym for “humanitie” (in Latin, humanitas) — thus reaffirming the Classical formulation.

Philanthropy in the USA

"Voluntary Associations"

At this same time English Colonists were coming to America, and here philanthropy flourished as a practical necessity. Land was plentiful and cheap, so labor was scarce and costly, and in any case the Colonists had no cash to pay for it. Entire communities had to be built from scratch, so with all the major projects that needed to be accomplished—barn-raising, road-building, schools, hospitals, orphanages, firefighting, public safety, whatever—they were either done by volunteers or they were not done. With not enough cash for charitable donations and a great deal of public good needing to be done, philanthropy in Colonial America was expressed mainly by volunteering.

What emerged in this way was a culture of collaboration. Colonial society was built by volunteers, or as Alexis de Tocqueville later referred to them, “voluntary associations” — which is to say, "private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life". He observed that they permeated American life, were a distinguishing feature of the American character and culture, and a key to American democracy. Americans, he said, did not rely on others — government, an aristocracy, or the church — to solve their public problems; rather, they did it themselves, through voluntary associations, which is to say, philanthropy, which was characteristically democratic.

One of the first, if not the first of these, was also one of the first American governments: the Mayflower Compact of 1620. The Pilgrims, still offshore but in American waters as it were, declared that they “solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.” The first corporation, Harvard Collegemarker (1636), also in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was a philanthropic voluntary association created to train young men for the clergy.

As was typical in that period, American philanthropic associations had ideological dimensions. Three of the leading English colonies—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia—were styled “Commonwealths”, which meant a purportedly ideal society in which all members contributed to the “common weal”—the public good.

A leading promoter of this Classical and Christian ideal was the preacher Cotton Mather, who in 1710 published a widely read American classic, Bonifacius, or an Essay to Do Good. Mather seems to have been concerned that the original idealism had eroded, so he advocated philanthropic benefaction as a way of life. Though his context was Christian, his idea was also characteristically American and explicitly Classical, on the threshold of the Enlightenment.

"Let no man pretend to the Name of A Christian, who does not Approve theproposal of A Perpetual Endeavour to Do Good in the World.… The Christianswho have no Ambition to be [useful], Shall be condemned by the Pagans;among whom it was a Term of the Highest Honour, to be termed, A Benefactor;to have Done Good, was accounted Honourable. The Philosopher [i.e., Aristotle ],being asked why Every one desired so much to look upon a Fair Object! Heanswered That it was a Question of a Blind man. If any man ask, as wantingthe Sense of it, What is it worth the while to Do Good in the world! I must Say,It Sounds not like the Question of a Good man.” (p.21)

Mather’s many practical suggestions for doing good had strong civic emphases—founding schools, libraries, hospitals, useful publications, etc. They were not primarily about rich people helping poor people, but about private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life. Two young Americans whose prominent lives, they later said, were influenced by Mather’s book, were Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere.

Benjamin Franklin

Regarded in his own time as “the first great American,” lionized in 18th-century Europe and America as a model of American values, and especially of the Enlightenment in America, the key to his life was his Classical, and classically American, philanthropy. He self-consciously and purposefully oriented his life around volunteer public service. Even his political rival in France, John Adams, avowed that “there was scarcely a peasant or citizen” who “did not consider him as a friend to humankind.” Immanuel Kant, the leading philosopher of the German Enlightenment, called Franklin the “new Prometheus” for stealing fire from the heavens in his scientific experiments with lightning as electricity, for the benefit of mankind. Franklin had direct connections with the Scottish Enlightenment; he was called “Dr. Franklin” because he had been awarded honorary degrees from the three Scottish Universities—St. Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh—and while travelling there he had personally befriended the leading Scottish Enlightenment thinkers.

In Philadelphia, Franklin created perhaps the first personal system of civic philanthropy in America. As a young tradesman in 1727, he formed the “Junto”: a 12-member club that met on Friday evenings to discuss current issues and events. One of the four qualifications for membership was the “love [of] mankind in general”. Two years later (1729) he founded the Philadelphia Gazette, and for the next thirty years he used the Junto as a sort of think-tank to generate and vet philanthropic ideas, and the Gazette to test and mobilize public support, recruit volunteers, and fund-raise. This system was heroically productive and beneficial, creating America’s first subscription library (1731), a volunteer fire association, a fire insurance association, the American Philosophical Societymarker (1743-4), an “academy” (1750—which became the University of Pennsylvania), a hospital (1752—through fundraising with a challenge grant), the paving and patrolling of public streets, the finance and construction of a civic meeting house, and many others.

In 1747 the Pennsylvania Colony was disrupted by violent conflicts with Indians in the west, and with French-Canadian privateers in the lower Delaware River. The government in Philadelphia was Quaker, hence pacifist, and did nothing. Franklin, increasingly frustrated with this inaction, consulted his Junto, and published a pamphlet, Plain Truth, declaring that Pennsylvania was defenseless unless the people would take matters into their own hands. He proposed a “military association” to raise funds and a private militia, and within a few weeks it had recruited more than a hundred companies, with over 10,000 men-at-arms, and raised over £6,500 in a public lottery. This was a prototype of the American Revolution.

The American Revolution

The Classical view of philanthropy provided the conceptual model, and voluntary associations the procedural model, for the American Revolution. The Revolution began in Concord, Massachusetts—arguably one of the epicenters of American philanthropy.“Here once the embattled farmers stood,/ And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn"

The 'farmers' referred to in this line were the “Minutemen”, voluntary associations of farmers who would be ready to leave their farms and take up arms against the British. They were warned by observers and riders, most famously by Paul Revere, an avid and leading volunteer in many civic causes, who had organized a voluntary association of troop observers and riders like himself to rally the towns around Boston.

The Continental Army was manned by volunteers, and financed by private donations; its Commanding General, George Washington, served without pay as a volunteer, explicitly pro bono publico—for the public good. He often signed his letters, “Philanthropically yours”.

Throughout the Colonies, the commitment to independence had been cultivated by innumerable voluntary political associations, such as the Sons of Liberty.

The Founders at Independence Hall in Philadelphia acted as a philanthropic voluntary association. The Declaration of Independence was the first instance in history in which the creation of a national government was formally preceded by an idealistic mission statement—routine in voluntary associations—addressed to, on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind. The Declaration concludes with a voluntary pledge by the Founders as individuals “to each other” of their personal lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.

The first form of government proposed for the new nation was called an “Association”. The final form, the United States Constitution, proceeded as a voluntary association, also beginning with a mission statement and—another “first” in history—ratified by vote of its individual members, "The People". The Constitution’s “Preamble” featured private initiative, public good, and quality of life:

“WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Finally, in the very first Federalist Paper, page 1, paragraph 1, Alexander Hamilton launched the Founders’ argument for the Constitution’s ratification, by noting that “it is commonly remarked” that in creating this new nation, Americans were acting on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind. “This” he wrote, “adds the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism.”

And “commonly remarked” it was—: In 1776, Thomas Paine had written in Common Sense, his very popular and influential tract for independence:

“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind (emphasis here) are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.”

As Ben Franklin had said to the French about the American Revolution: “We are fighting for the dignity and happiness of human nature.”

The “philanthropy” Hamilton was talking about was not “rich helping poor”, but private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life. Classical philanthropy had become classically American. The United States was not only created by philanthropy, but also for philanthropy—to be a philanthropic nation, a gift to humanity, squarely in the Promethean tradition.

19th Century: Disintegration

The Founders’ synthesis, of the Classical view of philanthropy with American patriotic voluntary associations, did not sustain its cultural leadership. The Enlightenment, of which it was the quintessential American expression, was swept away in Europe by the French Revolution, Napoleon, and Romanticism. In America, the early history of the Republic saw rapid, tumultuous, growth and a sorting-out of what had been accomplished. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, waves of immigration, urban growth and westward expansion, together with shifting political practices and a new cast of characters in political leadership, combined to dissolve the philanthropic culture and spirit of its founding.

That disintegration was noticed and regretted. The blossoming of American literature in the 19th century, with Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and others, was essentially a protest against the disruptive forces of technology, urbanization, and industrialization, and in their wake the perceived loss of classical American values. On the other hand, this movement was evidence that the flame of philanthropic, practical, idealism had not died with the Founders. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated the philanthropic spirit of the Revolution in his “Concord Hymn,” quoted above, and in his 1844 essay “The Young American,” he wrote,

“It seems so easy for America to inspire and express the most expansive and humane spirit; new-born, free, healthful, strong, the land of the laborer, of the democrat, of the philanthropist, of the believer, of the saint, she should speak for the human race. It is the country of the future.”

The flame was still alive in 1863, whens, as Garry Wills has shown, President Abraham Lincoln codified and enshrined the classic conceptualization of our country's mission in his Gettysburg Address, speaking of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”.

Philanthropy's Contributions to American Life

The philanthropic spirit and practical necessity of voluntary associations and their attendant collaborative culture moved west with the frontier throughout the 19th century, thus reinforcing the “philanthropic and democratic” development of the American character. All of private education and of religion in America have been necessarily philanthropic, but beyond those every reform movement in our history — e.g., anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, environmental conservation, civil rights, feminism, and various peace movements—began as philanthropic voluntary associations. Many were, or were regarded as, counter-cultural and even outrageous when they first arose, but all were “private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life”.

American philanthropy has met challenges, and taken advantage of opportunities, that neither government nor business ordinarily address. The other sectors certainly affect American quality of life, but philanthropy focuses on it.

Philanthropy is a major source of income for fine arts and performing arts, religious, and humanitarian causes, as well as educational institutions (see patronage).

Modern Philanthropists

In 1982, Paul Newman co-founded the Newman's Own food company and donated all after-tax profits to various charities. Upon his death in 2008, the company had donated over $250 million to thousands of charities.

During the past few years, some high profile examples of philanthropy include Irish rock singer Bono's campaign to cancel Third World debt to developed nations; the Gates Foundation's massive resources and ambitions, such as its campaigns to eradicate malaria and river blindness; and billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett's donation in 2006 of $31 billion to the Gates Foundation.

Philanthropy is facilitated by development professionals and fundraisers. Donor relations and stewardship professionals support the development profession by recognizing and thanking donors in a fashion that will cultivate future giving to nonprofit organizations. The Association of Donor Relations Professionals (ADRP) is the first community of stewardship and donor relations professionals in the United States and Canada.



The purpose of philanthropy is also debated. Some equate philanthropy with benevolence and charity for the poor. Others hold that philanthropy can be any altruistic act that fulfills a social need that is not served, is under-served, or is perceived as unserved or underserved by the market.

Some believe that philanthropy can be a means to build community by growing community funds and giving vehicles. When communities see themselves as being resource rich instead of asset poor, the community is in a better position to solve community problems.

Philanthropy responds to either the present or the future needs. The charitable response to an impending disaster is an action of philanthropy. It offers immediate honor for the philanthropist, yet requires no foresight. Responding to future needs, however, draws on the donor's foresight and wisdom, but seldom recognizes the donor. Prevention of future needs will often avert far more hardship than a response after the fact. For example, the charities responding to starvation from overpopulation in Africa are afforded swift recognition. Meanwhile, philanthropists behind the U.S. population control movement of the 1960s and 1970s were never recognized, and are lost to history.


Philanthropists are often popular and become known to the public as "good" or even "great." Some governments are suspicious of philanthropic activities as possible grabs for favor, but still allow special interest groups to form non-governmental organizations.

Uses of the word

Conventional usage

By the conventional definition of philanthropy, donations are dedicated to a narrowly defined cause and the donation is targeted to effect a recognizable change in social conditions. This often necessitates large donations and financial support sustained over time.

The need for a large financial commitment creates a distinction between philanthropy and charitable giving, which typically plays a supporting role in a charitable organization initiated by someone else. Thus, the conventional usage of philanthropy applies mainly to wealthy persons, and sometimes to a trust created by a wealthy person with a particular cause or objective targeted.

Many non-wealthy persons have dedicated – thus, donated – substantial portions of their time, effort and wealth to charitable causes. These people are not typically described as philanthropists because individual effort alone is seldom recognized as instigating significant change. These people are thought of as charitable workers but some people wish to recognize these people as philanthropists in honor of their efforts.

A growing trend in philanthropy is the development of giving circles, whereby individual donors—often a group of friends—pool their charitable donations and decide together how to use the money to benefit the causes they care about most. The re-emergence of philanthropy in recent years, led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, which involves applying the techniques of business to philanthropy has been termed philanthrocapitalism.'

Largest individual bequests

See also



  1. The Classical etymology and history of philanthropia has received increasing attention among scholars. See McCully, George: Philanthropy Reconsidered, A Catalogue for Philanthropy Publication, Boston, 2008; and Sulek, Marty: On the Classical Meaning of Philanthropia, in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly OnlineFirst, March 13, 2009 as doi:10.1177/0899764009333050.
  2. "Stewardship & Donor Relations,"
  3. Association of Donor Relations Professionals
  4. The Economist
  5. Rockefeller Foundation
  6. Gurney, Kaitlin. "10 years later, Rowan still reaps gift's rewards - Rowan Milestones", The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 9, 2002. Accessed August 1, 2007. "Rowan University catapulted onto the national stage a decade ago when industrialist Henry Rowan gave sleepy Glassboro State College $100 million, the largest single sum ever donated to a public institution.... Rowan and his late wife, Betty, gave the money on July 6, 1992, with just one requirement: that a first-rate engineering school be built. In gratitude, Glassboro State changed its name to Rowan College."

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