Philanthropists and Philanthropy

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What is Philanthropy?

The Philanthropic Spectrum

Philanthropy is derived from two Greek words, philos meaning love and anthropos meaning humankind. Hence at its root philanthropy is the loving of one’s fellow human beings and philanthropists are those who exert themselves for the well-being of their fellows.[1]

The aim of philanthropy in its broadest sense is the improvement in the quality of human life. Whatever motives animate individual philanthropists, the purpose of philanthropy itself is to promote the welfare, happiness, and culture of mankind.[2]

Such a definition is sufficiently broad to do justice to the range of fields in which such welfare, happiness and culture is promoted. To understand philanthropy and those who exercised it, however, it is also important to examine not only its purpose but its motive and outcomes.

Philanthropy is a spectrum of activity and these activities differ in their purpose and in the principles on which it would appear to operate. Lynn and Wisley[3] helpfully identify four traditions of philanthropy within this spectrum. There is philanthropy as relief which seeks to alleviate human suffering and the principle of compassion is said to be its driving force. Philanthropy as improvement seeks to maximise individual human potential and is apparently energised by a principle that seeks to progress individuals and their society. Philanthropy as reform seeks to solve social problems and its stated principle is that of addressing issues of justice often through legislation. Philanthropy as civic engagement seeks to build better community structures and services and is directed by a notion of civic responsibility.[4]

Almost all charitable activity in which the philanthropists were involved, and much of the philanthropic activity of the nineteenth century, had some spiritual dimension to it. The Christian faith was a valued component of the time and religious people were philanthropic. The Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS) is a case in point where women were provided with shelter and taught skills but there was also a good deal of teaching on spiritual matters. For the philanthropists of the SFRS to provide refuge and yet not to seek to communicate the Christian faith would have been, in their thinking, to provide to the women no refuge at all. The fact that it was not done under the auspices of a particular church body did not make its efforts any less Christian in purpose, for the formation of non-church based philanthropic societies of a protestant evangelical persuasion was characteristic of the nineteenth century.

Some philanthropy, however, particularly involving the church, had as its primary object to bring a person to Christian faith. It only provided philanthropy as understood on the spectrum of Lynn and Wisley as a secondary objective. Such activities which were primarily spiritual were, however, philanthropic in the Christian world view of the time. In order to accommodate these activities with a primary spiritual focus the philanthropic spectrum of Lynn and Wisley is expanded in the articles on Philanthropists to include them. Such activities will be categorised as Philanthropy as spiritual engagement.

The level of commitment to philanthropic work varied among philanthropists. Those who simply gave money are termed financial philanthropists whereas those who involved themselves in running various charitable organisations are called governance philanthropists and still others who were employed to do the work of the philanthropic organisations are known as vocational philanthropists.

 © Dr Paul F Cooper, 2014

[1] Concise Oxford English Dictionary,  5th ed., s.v. ‘Philanthropy.’

[2] Robert H. Bremer, American Philanthropy,  2nd ed., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 3.

[3] Elizabeth Lynn and Susan Wisley, ‘Four Traditions of Philanthropy’ in The Critically Engaged Reader. A Diverse Collection of Short Provocative Readings on Civic Activity, ed. Adam Davis and Elizabeth Lynn, 1, (Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2006).

[4] Lynn and Wisley, ‘Four Traditions of Philanthropy,’ 4-6. Their idea of civic philanthropy, however, has a different emphasis.

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