“Philanthropy,” An Often Misused Term

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    I have a BIG problem with the word/concept of “philanthropy” as it is often misused in the nonprofit/fundraising world.

    Too often, people in the nonprofit sector equate the terms fundraising, development, charity and contributions with the concept of philanthropy. They are not synonymous.

    Philanthropy, in its literal definition, refers to “love of mankind/humankind. In the broad context of fundraising, it relates to giving that is motivated (primarily) by the desire to help others.

    In last Tuesday’s posting, “When I Forgot the Meaning of Philanthropy,” Tony Poderis related a good example of where real philanthropy comes from – that some people’s “desperate need to receive was the perfect balance for [his] need to give.” Truly, in the end, his was an example of philanthropy, of his desire/need to help others.

    The thing is, and my focus here is on the definition and use of the word “philanthropy,” not everyone gives for philanthropic reasons. For the most part, people aren’t giving out of their love of humankind. That doesn’t mean that people are not giving to help other people, it just means that many are giving to (primarily) satisfy their own needs.

    “People give because giving (in some way) makes them feel good.” I can’t imagine a person making a gift and not getting some good feeling from the act.

    Whether a donation is made because the donor wants to be (or feel as if) s/he is part of a particular group, because s/he was brought up to believe that you’re supposed to give, because it looks good to the community, because the solicitor is someone that s/he cannot refuse (for whatever reason), to get one’s name on a donor list or a plaque, or for whatever other reason a person might have for giving, not every gift is philanthropically motivated.

    Indeed, giving tends to be an activity/action that makes the donor feel good. Even s/he who gives grudgingly, in the end … and for whatever reason, feels good about giving.

    My point, with this exercise, is to emphasize for folks at nonprofit organizations that if you want people to give you their money, you must know/understand what motivates your potential donor.

    That a nonprofit does wonderful things and helps lots of people may not be the reason that every current and former donor has made their gift, and it may not be the reason that they and others give in the future.

    For those who give to causes/organizations like yours for philanthropic reasons, an appeal on that basis is usually sufficient. For those who are motivated by other reasons, you need to appeal to them based on what will make them want to give … and that may not have anything to do with how wonderful your organization might be.


    Have a comment or a question about starting, evaluating or expanding your fundraising program? With over 30 years of counseling in major gifts, capital campaigns, bequest programs and the planning studies to precede these three, I’ll be pleased to answer your questions. Contact me at Hank@Major-Capital-Giving.com


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