Philanthropy unbound

Philanthropy is a word often associated with top hats and tote bags. But its original and essential meaning -- going back to the ancient Greeks -- is even more generous: It is about helping humanity make progress.

Aijaz Rahi/AP/File
Shobha (l.) kisses her younger sister Lakshmi at a school in Bangalore, India, funded by the Azim Premji Foundation.

Charity is the heart speaking. Giving is what happens when people listen. And philanthropy is the systematic application of giving for the betterment of humanity – whether aiding famine victims in Africa or supporting symphony orchestras in North America.

In a Monitor cover story, we profile philanthropists around the world, focusing on how and when they decided to use their wealth, skill, or influence to help others. We ask them, in essence, what their hearts said, and why they listened.

“Philanthropist” is a fancy word. We’re used to associating it with top hats, tote bags, and gala fundraisers. But before the 20th century, the word had a larger meaning that elevated even the noble cause of giving to the needy into something grander. Marty Sulek, a lecturer at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, has traced the concept back to the ancient Greeks and in the process freed it from the meaner motivations social science has seen as driving it.

If you consider humans to be creatures only of economics and politics, Dr. Sulek said in a phone interview, then giving can have a selfish connotation. It’s about honor and self-esteem (although even if the reason for giving is to see your name on a brass plaque or hear it mentioned on PBS, making the world a better place is still worthy of applause).

But the original idea behind philanthropy was more generous. It meant loving humanity and wanting to see it improve. This more expansive motive can be attributed to religion, upbringing, or education. You might even source it to that unquantifiable spark within us: the conscience; the still small voice.

The concept of philanthropy, Sulek says, originated in “Prometheus Bound” and other myths in which supernatural creatures smuggled knowledge to humans because they loved humanity and human culture. As the term evolved, it came to mean kindly affection and social graces such as courtesy and friendliness. Eventually, philanthropy was associated with financial generosity. If you want to help humanity, it’s not a bad idea to put your money where your heart is.

The problem, as Sulek described it in a 2010 article in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, is that thinking of philanthropy only in money terms diminishes the concept. Why, he asks, should we neglect “love of the human, the beautiful, the good, the divine, or wisdom; personal excellence, civic virtue, or morality; rational understanding, moral sentiment, or good will; the pleasures of social intercourse, the craving for social standing and recognition, or the lust for power; the highest ideals, aims, aspirations, and hopes of people living in a civil society; or even just simply what it means to be fully human.” We’re complex creatures. Any or all of these impulses can move us.

In our cover story, you’ll meet eight philanthropists – from a German countess promoting women in science and the arts to an Indian tycoon trying to lift up his country through education to an American providing rugged bikes to impoverished communities worldwide. Their motives and aims are all over the map, just as Sulek would predict. But they have this in common: Their hearts spoke, they listened, and humanity is a little better as a result. 

Those who listen to their hearts and act, for any reason, are philanthropists.

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