The Difference Between Charity and Philanthropy

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?

15 thoughts on “The Difference Between Charity and Philanthropy

  1. For the etymologists, I always find it interesting that charity’s Latin roots and philanthropy’s Greek roots are both based on meanings of loving-kindness or generosity which are not necessarily the associations we have with these words today.
    Regardless, long-term solutions are needed to influence social change. Both charity and philanthropy can “make a difference” but effectiveness must be judged on how they address the root causes of why people are vulnerable in the first place.

    • Interesting thoughts. I must confess to not know much about the etymology of “charity” and “philanthropy,” although I like to think I have some expertise on their practical applications. You’re right that both charity and philanthropy make a difference; my premise is that charity is giving a man a fish, while philanthropy is teaching him how to fish.

      Thanks for the input!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, which is certainly an accepted conventional view. The etymology and history of both words is illuminating.

    “Charity” in Latin was “caritas”; the Latin for “philanthropía” was “humanitas”. The Greek for “caritas” was agapé—selfless, altruistic, generous, love; “philanthropía” meant the “love of what it is to be human”—i.e., the caring for, nurturing, developing, all the attributes of our humanity, our humane-ness. When the Roman Empire and its economy collapsed into the “Dark Ages”, there was no practical need for the concept of loving what it is to be human; practical philanthropy devolved into poor-relief, usually by monks whose monasteries produced the only surpluses, and who were seeking salvation through their good works. The word and concept of philanthropía hibernated in forgotten manuscripts of the monastic libraries. When population, commerce, and cities re-emerged in the later Middle Ages, the need for secular education of leaders in business and politics revived the interest in Classical literature, in the so-called “humanities”—grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy—or what we know as “Renaissance humanism” and liberal education.

    These two concepts are generally consistent with the notions of the Blog, if by philanthropy is meant investing in quality of life, improving the human condition, of the beneficiaries, and charity means applying immediate remedies. Another way to put it is that charity addresses the symptoms, and philanthropy the causes, of social problems.

  3. “Charity is giving…philanthropy is doing.” I love this. I’ve explored the concept of philanthropy on my own blog, another jennifer. It’s definitely more than just giving money. Would you mind if I used some of this post on my blog (with credit and link back of course)? Or maybe you’d like to share a story for my Philanthropy Friday section? Let me know! 🙂 You can see all my posts under the category of Philanthropy here:

  4. Pingback: Charity is giving. Philanthropy is doing. - another jennifer | another jennifer

  5. Great blog post! I see that Jennifer added this blog post to her blog…she also added it to her list > Good Stuff viz SkinnyScoop! Such a great article 🙂

  6. I’m struck by the idea of how much charity is, or is not, about a chance. Likely, Reverend Helms meant a chance for those that get trained at Goodwill. But isn’t it also a chance for all of us to do something to make the world a better place? This is particularly on my mind after writing a tribute to a friend who died too young, yet left such a legacy of doing great things. With this work, it was a chance for him to make the world a better place and give others a chance as well.

    Your ‘giving/doing’ distinction makes me wonder: what are we giving and what are we doing? To whom does the benefit accrue? Both the giver and receiver. Anyway, GREAT post. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you!

  7. Pingback: Weekly Toolbox

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