Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money or goods, or providing some other support to a charitable cause, usually over an extended period of time. Philanthropy is a major source of income for artistic, musical, religious, and humanitarian causes, as well as educational institutions ranging from schools and universities to libararies and museums. In a more fundamental sense, philanthropy may encompass any altruistic activity which is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. Someone who is well known for practicing philanthropy may be called a philanthropist. Although such individuals are often very wealthy, people may nevertheless perform philanthropic acts without possessing great wealth. Ultimately, the value of philanthropy lies in recognizing that we all have responsibility to society as a whole, and that we should use our talents and the fruits thereof, not primarily for our own personal benefit but for the sake of all.
Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating extensive financial or material support to a charitable organization. By the conventional definition of philanthropy, donations are dedicated to a narrowly defined cause and the donation is targeted to make a recognizable change in social conditions. This often necessitates large donations and financial support sustained over time.
Many non-wealthy persons have dedicated—thus, donated—substantial portions of their time, effort, and wealth to charitable causes. These people are not typically described as philanthropists because individual effort alone is seldom recognized as instigating significant change. These people are thought of as charitable workers, but some wish to recognize these people as philanthropists in honor of their efforts.
The need for a large financial commitment creates a distinction between philanthropy and "charitable giving," which typically plays a supporting role in a charitable organization initiated by someone else. Thus, the conventional usage of "philanthropy" applies mainly to wealthy persons, and sometimes to a trust created by a wealthy person with a particular cause or objective targeted.
Philanthropy is not always viewed as a universal good. Notable thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand opposed philanthropy on philosophical grounds, connecting it with the idea of the weak subsisting from the strong, a view sometimes endorsed by those who oppose government welfare programs.
The purpose of philanthropy is also debated. Some equate philanthropy with benevolence and charity for the poor and needy. Others hold that philanthropy can be any altruistic giving towards any kind of social need that is not served by the market.
Others suggest that philanthropy can be a means to build community by growing community funds and providing vehicles for support. When communities see themselves as being resource-rich instead of asset-poor, they are in a better position to solve community-wide problems.
Philanthropy is a private sector means of effecting social change without recourse to government mechanisms, such as those represented by aid programs.
However, governments are often supportive of philanthropic efforts. In many countries, those who donate money to a charity are given a tax exemption. On the other hand, some governments are suspicious of philanthropic activities as possible efforts to gain influence by non-governmental organizations.
Social activists frequently criticize philanthropic contributions by corporations whom activists consider "suspect." An example is the Harvard, Exxon, and South Africa case. Harvard University divested itself of Exxon stock after pressure and accusations that Exxon's doing business in South Africa contributed to apartheid. Exxon did in fact stop doing business in South Africa, as did other companies, thereby costing employees their jobs and South Africa several contributors to a healthy economy. On the other hand, the international embargo against South Africa finally forced the white minority to grant political and human rights to its black and colored citizens.
In the United States, there is a strong tradition of philanthropy. Numerous wealthy people, most of whom gained their wealth through their own hard work, return large portions of their riches to society through philanthropic foundations, the establishment of libraries and educational institutions, support for the arts, medical research, and so forth, all greatly beneficial to society as a whole. One explanation for the abundance of philanthropic activity in the U.S. and Protestant Europe lies in the Calvinist ethic. People who work hard and receive much financial benefit, according to this doctrine, view themselves as the "elect," blessed by God with abundance, which they should then share with others.
Examples of well-known philanthropists include:
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