Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

What Is A Philanthropist?

What does it mean to be someone committed to the public good? How can people use the resources and wealth they have to help others? Philanthropy is interested in these questions. A philanthropist is someone who uses their wealth to support charitable causes such as anti-poverty initiatives, humanitarian aid, and other development projects. In this article, we’ll discuss the history of philanthropy, its pros and cons, and how anyone – regardless of their class status – can embrace the spirit of philanthropy.

Philanthropists are typically rich individuals who use their wealth to establish or support charitable causes and institutions like foundations, hospitals, museums, libraries, and more. While the spirit of philanthropy is meant to be selfless, modern philanthropy does face its fair share of criticism.

A short history of philanthropy

The word philanthropy comes from the Ancient Greek philanthrōpía, which translates to “love of humanity.” According to the National Philanthropic Trust, many cultures embraced the ideals of philanthropy, including ancient Greece, China, and India. Many religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Native American spirituality) also taught about the importance of kindness and selflessness. For many centuries, churches and communities were primarily responsible for charity. In the 18th century, however, a new form of giving began to emerge. In 1739, businessman Thomas Coram noticed a high number of abandoned children on London’s streets. He spent the next 17 years calling for a children’s home until King George II finally signed a royal charter that established the Foundling Hospital. Many believe this to be the first incorporated charity. Its work continues today through The Coram Foundation.

Philanthropy also has a long history in the United States where it historically included financial giving, as well as volunteering and organizing. Groups would donate money, organize events, and call for social and political progress. Wealthy individuals also became extremely influential in establishing universities, fine arts institutions, hospitals, and more. George Peabody, who was born in 1795, is often called “the father of modern philanthropy.” He was a merchant banker who dedicated his life to giving away as much money as possible. His philanthropic endeavors included libraries, museums, and the Peabody Education Fund, which supported education for Southern children following the Civil War. The Peabody Awards are named after him. Peabody’s life served as the model for famous philanthropic billionaires like Andrew Carnegie, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and others.

Praise and criticism of philanthropy

It’s difficult to deny the inherent good of philanthropy when it’s defined as the love of humanity. However, are philanthropists doing good work all the time? Or is there a darker side to their charitable giving? Like all things, philanthropy has its pros and cons. Here are some of the most commonly praised and criticized aspects of philanthropy:

Praise: Philanthropists can support causes that aren’t getting funding elsewhere

The vast majority of charities don’t receive enough funding. NGOs typically operate with very tight margins and depend on private donations, which can ebb and flow. Wealthy philanthropists can play a crucial role in supporting causes that are struggling to gain donations. Their large financial gifts can lift organizations out of the red and attract media attention, which in turn can attract more donations. This is especially important for causes that are historically underfunded, such as the rights and well-being of girls and women. According to reporting from Fast Company, nonprofits focused on girls and women received only 1.6% of all charitable giving between 2012-2015. Philanthropists are in a position to fill in funding gaps and raise awareness of underfunded organizations.

Praise: Philanthropists can inspire more giving

When philanthropists announce their large donations, it can set off a domino effect of giving from other wealthy philanthropists. Research supports this theory of “contagious” giving. In one 2013 study, the amount people gave in an online fundraiser appeared to affect how much others gave after them. In 2010, Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet announced the Giving Pledge campaign and began recruiting other wealthy individuals. As of December 2021, 231 people from 28 countries have signed on. If these billionaires and millionaires can fulfill their pledge of giving away most of their wealth and inspire others to do the same, that’s a lot of money that goes to charity.

Criticism: Philanthropists can use their wealth to exert control

One of the most serious criticisms of philanthropy is that it allows society’s wealthiest people to call all the shots at the expense of everyone else’s voices. As scholar Rob Reich explained in 2018, big philanthropy is “an exercise in power” and whenever that power extends to the public, “the response it deserves is not gratitude but scrutiny.” A post on The Conversation provides a specific example of how philanthropic giving weakens democracy without necessarily solving anything. In the 1990s, foundations began focusing on education reform in the United States. Billions of dollars have been poured into the philanthropists’ ideas about school choice, performance-based evaluation, and more. As the article points out, however, most people weren’t asking for philanthropists to swoop in and save them. For all the money devoted to reform, not much has improved, either. This is a tale of well-intentioned, but ill-informed philanthropists without experience in education taking the reins away from the public. When it comes to issues that affect all of society – like education – why should the voices of the wealthy matter the most?

Criticism: Philanthropists don’t fix systemic issues

When philanthropy consists of mostly just large donations, it’s like filling in holes in a sinking boat. The boat is still sinking; plugging the holes has perhaps only delayed the inevitable. The real solution – getting the boat back to shore where it can be properly repaired- can only be done through systemic changes to institutions and policies. Many philanthropists ignore the complex political, social, and cultural roots of the causes they focus on, or, as we described above, they prioritize their own ideas about progress. In some cases, wealthy philanthropists are actually contributing to the systemic flaws or causing harm in other ways. They’re poking new holes in the ship while simultaneously trying to fill in others.

How anyone can be a philanthropist

Today, most people think of philanthropists as the wealthiest people in society giving away lots of money. With this narrow definition, philanthropy quickly becomes muddled with reasonable criticisms about motivation, power, and impact. What if we took philanthropy back to its roots and thought of it through its basic meaning: the love of humanity? With this definition, it doesn’t matter whether you can give $10 to charity or $100 million. Your time becomes just as available as your money, as well. A philanthropist is someone who cares about others and uses the resources they have. Here’s how to embrace philanthropy in your own life:

Be strategic

You can do philanthropic things without a strategy (i.e. giving money to organizations a few times a year), but if you want to make philanthropy more of a habit and identity, it’s a good idea to approach it strategically. That can mean setting up recurring donations to a nonprofit, arranging your schedule so you can volunteer regularly, and encouraging people you know to donate or volunteer with you. A good strategy ensures you don’t get distracted or burned out.

Research the causes and organizations you care about

When it comes to giving money and time, you don’t want to feel like you’re wasting either. To feel confident in the causes or organizations you’re considering giving to, research is important. If an organization is a registered nonprofit (in the United States, that makes it a 501(c)(3) organization), it has to make financial reports available to the public. These forms give you a clearer idea of how much money is used for overhead versus programs and campaigns. Research also helps you choose organizations with high levels of trust.

Consider joining an organization

There are millions of charitable organizations working around the world. If you want to invest your time and skills into supporting causes, joining an organization in a paid or unpaid role is a great option. Even if you’re only able to commit to a few hours a week, you’re living in the spirit of philanthropy.

Consider forming your own group

If you see a problem that isn’t getting a lot of attention or funding, consider forming your own group. The group can focus on supporting larger organizations committed to the cause or perform more hands-on work in your community. You may want to keep the group fairly informal and small, or maybe you have ambitions for official legal status. Whatever your hopes are, running a group can be very challenging, so plan carefully and ask advice from other activists and philanthropists if you don’t have a lot of experience.

Stay open-minded

Most people are more than happy to jump at the chance to do good in the world, but philanthropy can be complicated. As we’ve described, there are potential problems that arise from philanthropic giving and trying to fix the problems in society. If you want to be a philanthropist, keep in mind that your initial ideas may not be the best ones. Stay open-minded and willing to collaborate with people, especially people who belong to the communities you want to help. At the end of the day, their voices are the ones that matter the most. The best philanthropists are the ones ready to listen to those most impacted by their decisions. If you would like to learn more about philanthropy, consider taking a course online.

Did you find this article useful? Support our work and follow us on Telegram and Mastodon or sign up to our newsletter!

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.