The Many Faces of Philanthropy



Philanthropy is often associated with rich individuals giving away eye-popping sums of money to charity. Yet philanthropy can take many forms and it is not always about money. Famous examples of philanthropists include Mother Teresa, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Dolly Parton. In addition to monetary donations, philanthropists can also donate their time and expertise. Many large corporations also have philanthropic programs in place. They may match employee donations, offer grants to non-profits, or encourage employees to volunteer their time.

The word “philanthropy” is derived from the Greek words for love of humanity. This sentiment can lead people to cross barriers and help those who are different from themselves. For example, when African American women chose to honor the brave firefighters who responded to the Boston Marathon bombings by naming their children after them, they were recognizing that the victims and responders were from diverse backgrounds. They were also expressing the idea that it was our moral responsibility to aid those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

While it is true that some philanthropists have been accused of being anti-democratic, the vast majority of them are not. It is important for those who are considering becoming philanthropists to find the causes they are most passionate about and work with local communities to determine what the real needs of that community are. Otherwise, they can become fixated on addressing a problem that the local population does not see as their top priority. For instance, if Bill Gates becomes fixated on the issue of polio in an area where that is not a significant problem, it could divert resources from other pressing needs.

Another problem that occurs is when philanthropists do not consider the effect their actions might have on other social problems. For example, if a group of wealthy donors decide to give millions to an organization that promotes abortion rights, the effect of that philanthropy might be to make the other social problems that cause poverty worse. In this way a person can get caught up in a cycle of giving and receiving without really making a difference.

Despite these concerns, the philanthropic spirit is still alive and well in our society. The tax code encourages people to give by offering generous tax deductions on charitable contributions of cash and property like life insurance. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has donated more than US$300 billion to date and is one of the world’s largest private foundations. Nike cofounder Phil Knight has given more than $1.2 billion to his own foundation.

Many people who are interested in being philanthropists are not sure where to start. They are often intimidated by the amount of work it takes to create and run a philanthropic organization. They also worry that they will not have enough of a personal connection to the cause to be effective. A good first step is to look around and discover what community projects are taking place in your own backyard.

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