Philanthropy etymologically means "the love of humanity"—love in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, or enhancing; humanity in the sense of "what it is to be human," or "human potential." In modern practical terms, it is "private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life"—balancing the social-scientific aspect emphasized in the 21st century, with the long-traditional and original humanist core of the word's ancient coinage. This formulation distinguishes it from business (private initiatives for private good, focusing on material prosperity) and government (public initiatives for public good, focusing on law and order).


Etymology and original meaning

It is generally agreed that the word was coined 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece by the playwright, Aeschylus, or whoever else wrote Prometheus Bound. There (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 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 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 human potential—what these proto-humans could accomplish and 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.[1]

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 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. 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.



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.

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.

Some Large Individual Bequests

See also



  1. ^ The Classical etymology and history of philanthropía 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 Philanthropía, in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly OnlineFirst, March 13, 2009 as doi:10.1177/0899764009333050.
  2. ^ "Implementing Warren Buffett's Gift". Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 
  3. ^ "Announcement by Azim Premji Foundation". Azim Premji Foundation. 
  4. ^ "T. Boone Pickens: OSU's Big, Big Man on Campus". Yahoo! Finance. 
  5. ^ "Clinton Hails Annenberg's $500 Million Education Gift". The New York Times. December 18, 1993. 
  6. ^ Andrew. Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920
  7. ^ a b "Billions and Billions Served, Hundreds of Millions Donated". New York Times. November 7, 2003. Retrieved 2008-07-28. "National Public Radio announced yesterday that it had received a bequest worth at least $200 million from the widow of the longtime chairman of the McDonald's restaurant chain. ... Few cultural institutions have been the beneficiaries of gifts as large as that received by NPR, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. One of the largest, worth $424 million, was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by foundations built on the Reader's Digest fortune." 
  8. ^ Rockefeller Foundation
  9. ^ 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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