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Philanthropy etymologically means "love of humanity" in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, and enhancing "what it is to be human" on both the benefactors' (by identifying and exercising their values in giving and volunteering) and beneficiaries' (by benefitting) parts. The most conventional modern definition is "private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life" (see below).

The word was first coined as an adjective, by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound (line 11, 460 BC), to describe Prometheus' character as "humanity loving" (philanthropos tropos), for having given to the earliest proto-humans, who had no culture, fire (symbolizing all the arts civilization) and "blind hope" (optimism). Together, they would be used to improve the human condition, to save mankind from destruction. Thus humans were distinguished from all other animals by civilization the power to complete their own creation through education (self-development) and culture (civic development), expressed in good works benefitting others. The Greek word for a philanthropic culture was paideia.

The first use of the noun form philanthrôpía came shortly thereafter (ca. 390 BC) in the early Platonic dialogue Euthyphro, where Socrates is reported to have said that his "pouring out" of his thoughts freely (without charge) to his listeners was his philanthrôpía. The Philosophical Dictionary of the Platonic Academy defined philanthrôpía 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." In the first century BC, both paideia and philanthrôpía were translated into Latin by the single word humanitas which was also understood to be the core of liberal education studia humanitatis, the studies of humanity, or simply "the humanities". In the second century AD, 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the humanities, and liberal education, declined with the Fall of Rome, during the Middle Ages philanthrôpía was superseded by caritas charity, selfless love, valued for salvation. The Classical notion was revived with the Renaissance, and flourished through the 18th century as a central secular value of the Enlightenment, in this spirit it was cited by Alexander Hamilton "This will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism...." in the opening paragraph of the First Federalist Paper, as a rationale for ratifying our Constitution.

In the twentieth century the long humanistic tradition and culture of philanthropy as Classically conceived, was superseded by social scientific terminology. Today "philanthropy" is conventionally defined as "private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life", thus combining the social scientific aspect developed in the 20th century with the original humanistic tradition, serving 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). Instances of philanthropy commonly overlap with instances of charity, though not all charity is philanthropy, or vice versa. The difference commonly cited is that charity relieves the pains of social problems, whereas philanthropy attempts to solve those problems at their root causes the difference between giving a hungry man a fish, and teaching him how to fish for himself. A person who practices philanthropy is called a philanthropist.

Modern philanthropy

Philanthropy has been affected in various ways by technological and cultural change. In the US, 6% of donations were made through the internet in 2011 (see also donation statistics). Organizations like Opportunity International and Kiva (microlending), Raise5 (microvolunteering), or Charitykick ( micro-donating) leverage crowd funding philanthropy to raise money for charity.

Charity evaluators, like Givewell and Charity Navigator have emerged, which assess charities in various ways to help prospective donors make their choice.


The classical view of philanthropy—that the "love of what it is to be human" is the essential nature and purpose of humanity, culture and civilization—is intrinsically philosophical, containing both metaphysics and ethics. It asserts that our nature and purpose in life is educational—to make ourselves more fully humane through self-development, pursuing excellence (arete) of body, mind and spirit. The ancient Greek word for culture as education was paideia. Paideia and "philanthropía were both later translated by the Romans into Latin by one word—significantly, humanitas.

The total economic collapse attending the Fall of Rome and leading into the so-called "Dark Ages" dissolved Classical civilization, replacing it with Christian theology and soteriology, administered through the Roman Catholic Church's ecclesiastical and monastic infrastructures. Gradually there emerged a non-religious agricultural infrastructure based on peasant farming organized into manors, which were in turn organized for law and order by feudalism. For a thousand years Classical humanism hibernated in forgotten manuscripts of monastic libraries. When it was rediscovered in the Italian Renaissance, humanism consisted of a specific academic curriculum: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, or ethics, designed to train laymen for effective leadership in business, law, and government. One of the clearest literary expressions of Renaissance humanist philosophy is Pico della Mirandola's famous 15th-century Oration on the Dignity of Man, which echoes the philanthropic myth of human creation, though with the Christian God as the Promethean Creator.

Europe emerged from the 16th-17th century Wars of Religion ready to try secular alternatives, for which humanistic philosophies of Rationalism and Empiricism, fortified by the Scientific Revolutions, inclined lay philosophers toward the progressive view of history inaugurated by Classical philanthropy. This tendency achieved an especially pure articulation in the Scottish Enlightenment, several of whose leading philosophers proposed philanthropy as the essential key to human happiness, conceived as a kind of "fitness"—living in harmony with Nature and one's own circumstances. Self-development, manifested in good deeds toward others, was the surest way to live a pleasing, fulfilling, and satisfying life, as well as to help build a commonwealth community.

Etymology and original meaning

It is generally agreed that the word was coined in Ancient Greece by the playwright Aeschylus, or whoever else wrote Prometheus Bound. There (in line 11) 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 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 would use fire constructively, to improve the human condition.

The new word, φιλάνθρωπος philanthropos, combined two words: φίλος philos, "loving" in the sense of benefitting, caring for, nourishing; and ἄνθρωπος anthropos, "human being" in the sense of "humanity", or "human-ness". At that mythical point in time, human individuality did not yet exist because there was no culture—including language, skills, and other differentiating attributes. What Prometheus evidently "loved", therefore, was not individual humans or groups of individuals, but humanity as a kind of being, human potential—what these proto-humans could become with "fire" and "blind hope". The two gifts in effect completed the creation of humankind as a distinctly civilized being. 'Philanthropía'—loving what it is to be human—was thought to be the key to and essence of civilization.

The Greeks adopted the "love of humanity" as an educational ideal, whose goal was excellence ( arete)—the fullest self-development, of body, mind, and spirit, which is the essence of liberal education. The Platonic Academy'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 says merely 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. In that form it came into full flower as a leading ideal of the Enlightenment, and particularly of the Scottish Enlightenment, in the works of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, and Frances Hutcheson. From there it entered the mainstream of American Enlightenment thought, and the spirit of philanthropy that informed the American Revolution—see Philanthropy in the United States.

Modern vernacular uses of the word

In 19th century America, the word "philanthropy" and its variants tended to drift in meaning and importance, generally to be associated with "doing good" and—derogatorily—"do-gooders"—e.g., Thoreau, in Walden. In the 20th century American philanthropy matured, with the development of very large private foundations created by titans of industry— Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, et al.—and later in the century with the professionalization of the field led and funded by those great foundations. 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. The word "philanthropy" came to be associated exclusively with its most conspicuous manifestations, foundations and grant-making. Professional fundraisers almost never used the word, always referring to their individual charity employers rather than to philanthropy in general or as a cultural phenomenon. The increasing dominance of the profession by social scientists or former social science majors tended to focus professional attention on technical and procedural issues rather than substantive values, on means rather than ends, on questions of how rather than why. Many professionals considered the word "philanthropy" to sound unnecessarily pretentious, pompous, pedantic, and in any case meaningless because the Classical view had been lost entirely, with the decline of the humanities and the classics in education.

Then at the turn of the 21st century, the word "philanthropy" began to re-enter the American vernacular. In 1997 a Massachusetts project of foundations, corporations and donors to increase charitable giving through donor education was centered on a Catalogue for Philanthropy. In 1998 leading national grantmakers funded a collaborative project to increase charitable giving through regional programs. Wealth creators in the new high-tech global economy, having amassed great fortunes exceeding even those of the previous century, were turning to second careers in philanthropy at earlier ages, creating even larger foundations. Individual philanthropy began to be chic, attracting celebrities from popular arts. Commercial movies and television adopted the word and idea, and a leading Classically American philanthropic initiative by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the "Giving Pledge", used the word with global publicity.

In scholarship, the 20th century rise to dominance by the social sciences focused attention on academic social theories and ideals—"civil society"—and technical jargon—the "third sector" and "nonprofits". In ARNOVA (the Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Action), the relevant academic society, scholars with humanistic training and orientation formed a small but growing minority of generally younger members. The emergence of the word "nonprofit" can be tracked by its appearance in increasing numbers of dissertation titles: 1 in 1959, 7 in the '60s, 49 in the '70s, 238 in the '80s and on up. By the early 21st century the word "nonprofit" was generally accepted as synonymous with philanthropy, though practitioners found it disadvantageously negative in fundraising and meaningless to donors. In 2011 its factual relevance was challenged by the Massachusetts Philanthropic Directory (MPD), which found that fewer than 10% of "nonprofits" are philanthropies. In organizational studies, philanthropy by corporations (i.e., corporate philanthropy) is often defined as charitable monetary donations, including donations in areas such as the arts, education, housing, health, social welfare, and the environment, among others, but excluding political contributions and commercial sponsorship.

Some large individual bequests

Note: These are nominal values and have not been adjusted for inflation

  • $31 billion from Warren Buffett to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (initial value of the gift)
  • $9 billion from Chuck Feeney to Atlantic Philanthropies
  • $2 billion from Azim Premji to the Azim Premji Foundation in 2010.
  • $1 billion from Ted Turner to the United Nations
  • $540 million from John D. Rockefeller to the Rockefeller Foundation and various other Rockefeller Charities, over the course of his life.
  • $500 million from T. Boone Pickens to Oklahoma State University.
  • $500 million from Walter Annenberg to public school reform in the United States
  • $350 million ($7 billion in modern terms) from Andrew Carnegie in 1901 who distributed most of his wealth to good causes, including the building Carnegie Hall New York City.
  • $424 million from managers of the Reader's Digest fortune to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • $350 million from Michael Jackson who distributed most of his wealth to good causes, and who supported over 39 charity organizations. He was listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records for the "Most Charities Supported By a Pop Star".
  • $350 million from Yank Barry and his Global Village Champions in food, education and medical supplies to the needy around the World from 1990 to the present.
  • $225 million from Raymond and Ruth Perelman, parents of Ronald O. Perelman, to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2011.
  • $200 million from Joan B. Kroc to National Public Radio in 2003
  • $100 million from Henry and Betty Rowan to Glassboro State College
  • Millions from Charles T. Hinde to undertake various projects in Southern California from 1895-1915.
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