The words charity and philanthropy are often used interchangeably, but it is the difference between the two that makes the biggest impact on the world around us.
Charity is ingrained in America’s cultural fabric – we give to charity because we feel a moral or religious calling to do so. Charity is how we show compassion for people displaced by natural disaster, or our support for victims of crime or violence. Charity is the change we leave behind in the jar to find homes for abandoned animals, or the extra dollar we contribute to fight poverty in third world countries.
Goodwill Industries is an American institution (and a former two-time employer of this blogger) that relies on charitable contributions to help support its services. And yet, its founder, the Reverend Edgar J. Helms, believed that Goodwill should be “not charity, but a chance” for people in need.
How does that chance happen? The answer is philanthropy.
Steve Gunderson, former president of the Council on Foundations, helped distinguish the difference between the two ostensibly interchangeable ideals:
Charity tends to be a short-term, emotional, immediate response, focused primarily on rescue and relief, whereas philanthropy is much more long-term, more strategic, focused on rebuilding. One of my colleagues says there is charity, which is good, and then there is problem-solving charity, which is called philanthropy, and I think that’s the distinction I have tried to make.
Whereas charity is essential to address immediate needs, philanthropy is the means by which individuals and nonprofit agencies achieve their greater missions. Philanthropy is breaking down the stereotype that an ex-offender can’t contribute to a business and society at-large. Philanthropy is building a well for a remote village in East Africa. Philanthropy is changing hearts and minds and cultures, it’s righting wrongs, it’s making the world a better place.
Charity is giving…philanthropy is doing.
Modern philanthropy paraphrases another of Reverend Helms’ favorite sayings. Charity can be a vital hand out to someone in need, but philanthropy is the hand up that allows that individual to find lasting success.
Few of us can make the kind of gift that adds a wing onto a hospital or builds a new library at our alma mater, but almost all of us can – with a little planning – be philanthropists that make a difference in some small (or large) way.
The difference between charity and philanthropy is one we can all define, if we take a little effort to make the distinction. Are you up for the challenge?