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Philanthropy and Giving Are Not Just about Money

Philanthropy and Giving Are Not Just about Money


What is the definition of "giving?" Has the term become synonymous with nothing but money – rather than the giving of an individual’s time, talents and skills?  And what about the word "philanthropy?" Has it, too, become indistinguishable from the giving of only money? Are philanthropy and giving just about money?

In this Points of View, co-authors Susan J. Ellis and Rob Jackson take a potentially volatile discussion – one that Rob first started in a blog for an influential UK publication – and bring it to e-Volunteerism’s international readership. Through the use of dictionary definitions, historical references and recent discussions, the co-authors trace the time-honored usages of these words and document recent developments in new adaptations and meanings. And "no," the co-authors conclude, "philanthropy and giving are not just about money."

The co-authors challenge readers to think deeply about this issue – which could no doubt have serious future implications for the volunteering community. "Why should we care?" Susan and Rob ask. "Because those of us focused on volunteer involvement need to listen carefully to the use of language by others – and be careful in our own word choices. Our goal should be to encourage the widest possible spectrum of giving and philanthropy, getting people to participate as they can, when they can, while helping our organizations to see any form of gift as support worthy of appreciation and cultivation."

The Blog Where It All Began

One of Rob’s many activities is to write “The Voice of Volunteering” blog for the influential Third Sector Online, the UK’s leading publication for “everyone who needs to know what’s going on in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector.” Its 80,000 readers include chief executives, trustees and senior managers in charities, parliamentarians, lawyers, finance professionals and private sector executives concerned with corporate responsibility.

Rob’s December blog, “The Term Giving Has Become More Synonymous with Giving Nothing but Money,” reflected on UK volunteering during 2012 and Rob’s concerns that “giving” has become synonymous with giving nothing but money. As Rob wrote:

At the end of 2011 I hoped that the continuing tough times would lead many leaders, organisations and others to open their eyes to the potential of volunteer support. Yet I also worried that many organisations would carry on as before, doing what they’ve always done and trying to fundraise their way out of trouble rather than looking at other resources available to them.

Sadly, I think my worries have been realised more than my hopes. The term ‘giving’ has become more synonymous with giving nothing but money. 2012 has been a year in which the term ‘giving’ has become more and more synonymous with giving money and money alone. It is almost as if there are not other resources available to charities other than cold hard cash.

I recently saw one charity interviewed on the TV that said that it was having to cut back on its mission because it didn’t have enough money to pay to deliver all it does. If charities are thinking that way rather than considering creatively all the resources available to them then they become no different to the private business, a sector so many charity leaders are all too ready to criticise.

John Clarke, one of the respondents to Rob’s blog post, emphatically agreed with Rob, and shared his recent debates and discussions about this very topic.  As Clarke wrote:

This blog echoes precisely what I was discussing with colleagues just a few days ago, and also in a public debate last week. The power and value of volunteering is immense, yet always plays second (or maybe third or even fourth) fiddle to cash donations. This problem is so deeply ingrained in the sector that when I recently introduced myself as a volunteer manager at a conference I was met with derisory snorts of, "volunteers can't be relied upon." Charities are more than willing to sink massive financial resources into acquiring, securing and retaining cash donors, yet often spend little - if anything - supporting donations of time. I am left flabbergasted by the number of organisations that have an ideological stance that they will not pay for anything related to volunteering simply because, "it's free."

Because Third Sector Online is focused on British charities, we thought it useful to bring this discussion about “giving” and the importance of words to our international e-Volunteerism readership. In this Points of View, we have also added our concerns about the word “philanthropy” and how it, too, has become indistinguishable from giving money.

Dictionary Definitions

Dictionary PagesThe English language is constantly evolving and new connotations of words frequently become more common than formal dictionary definitions. So let’s begin our discussion of vocabulary by summarizing how the words giving and philanthropy are defined in accepted reference material (for those who would like a more complete reference guide on definitions and all synonyms, here is a full list in an attachment).


Dictionaries in print and online generally agree on the meaning of the words “give” and “giving.” The Free Dictionary, as one example, provides 17 meanings for the transitive verb form of “give.” The first (most important) two are:

  1. To make a present of: We gave her flowers for her birthday.
  2. To place in the hands of; pass: Give me the scissors.

Its first definition for the intransitive verb form is: “To make gifts or donations: gives generously to charity.” So giving is not inherently limited to cash, but when used in the context of charity often implies financial contributions. The list of synonyms given by The Free Dictionary for the noun form of giving - the act of giving all state or imply transfer of money or things. Yet despite agreement on the definition of “give,” Merriam Webster provides a different set synonyms, including the word we care the most about: bestow, contribute, donate, give away, present, volunteer, give of.


Merriam Webster provides the origin of the word “philanthropy” as “Late Latin philanthropia, from Greek philanthrōpia, from philanthrōpos loving people, from phil- + anthrōpos human being.” It gives the definition as:

  • goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially: active effort to promote human welfare
  • an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes

Note the inclusion of effort and act as well as gift. Yet Merriam Webster’s list of synonyms for philanthropy focuses only on money: alms, benefaction, beneficence, charity, donation, contribution.

The Free Dictionary offers a number of definitions of philanthropy from various sources, starting with:

  • The effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations.
  • Love of humankind in general.
  • Something, such as an activity or institution, intended to promote human welfare.
  • A deliberate affection for mankind, shown in contributions of money, property, or work for the benefit of others.

Also, from the Collins English Dictionary: “The practice of performing charitable or benevolent actions.” And from Ologies & -Isms: “Voluntary activity of or disposition towards donating money, property, or services to the needy or for general social betterment. See also: Charity.”

Once again, these definitions do not limit the concept of philanthropy solely to money. Yet The Oxford Dictionaries (online) offers: “The desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.” Synonyms suggested by Collins Thesaurus of the English Language are:  

humanitarianism, charity, generosity, patronage, bounty, altruism, benevolence, munificence, beneficence, liberality, public-spiritedness, benignity, almsgiving, brotherly love, charitableness, kind-heartedness, generousness, open-handedness, largesse or largess

Investopedia defines philanthropy in a slightly different way, as:

Charitable giving to human causes on a large scale. Philanthropy must be more than just a charitable donation; it is an effort undertaken by an individual or organization based on an altruistic desire to improve human welfare. Wealthy individuals sometimes establish foundations to facilitate their philanthropic efforts.

Finally, Wikipedia’s page on philanthropy gives a number of common definitions along with a history of the concept of philanthropy. It concludes by quoting four American nonprofit academics:

Putting all this together in modern terms, there are four relatively authoritative definitions of "philanthropy" that come close to the Classical concept: John W.Gardner’s "private initiatives for the public good"; Robert Payton’s "voluntary action for the public good"; Lester Salamon’s "the private giving of time or valuables…for public purposes" and Robert Bremner’s "the aim of philanthropy…is improvement in the quality of human life." Combining these to connect modern philanthropy with its entire previous history, "philanthropy" may best be defined as "private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life."

Why vocabulary has changed over time

Wikipedia does help explain why philanthropic vocabulary has changed over time to its more narrow use:

In 19th century America, the word "philanthropy" and its variants tended to drift in meaning and importance, generally to be associated with "doing good" and—derogatorily—"do-gooders"—e.g., Thoreau, in Walden. In the 20th century American philanthropy matured, with the development of very large private foundations created by titans of industry—Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, et al.—and later in the century with the professionalization of the field led and funded by those great foundations. The sheer size of their endowments directed their attention to addressing the causes and instruments, as distinct from the symptoms and expressions, of social problems and cultural opportunities. The word "philanthropy" came to be associated exclusively with its most conspicuous manifestations, foundations and grant-making.

A very recent development in our philanthropic vocabulary is the newly-coined term “skillanthropy” – a word that’s used to distinguish the giving of time and talent from the giving of money.  Grant, “skillanthropy” It is not in wide use and is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but we think it can grab some attention for the alternative of volunteering. Of course, substituting skill for phil removes the “love” from the original word origin (see above)!

Why Should this Matter to Us?

Those of us focused on volunteer involvement need to listen carefully to the use of language by others – and be careful in our own word choices. Our goal should be to encourage the widest possible spectrum of giving and philanthropy, getting people to participate as they can, when they can, while helping our organizations to see any form of gift as support worthy of appreciation and cultivation.

Public Perception

Piggy Bank and ClockIf we limit the concepts of giving and philanthropy only to money, then it becomes another exclusive arena for the wealthy or at least those with a reasonable degree of disposable income. However, we argue that we want to bring in children and retirees; people on low incomes or welfare support; and more individuals for whom giving money may not be an option, even temporarily. Yes, they could be involved in raising money (and many charities limit volunteers to doing only that), but this also discounts all the other potential skills and expertise anyone can bring – often worth far more than the check they can afford.  And let’s not forget they might also want to share those skills even if they can afford a big check!

In the UK, there is still an association made between philanthropy and the well-off giving to the less well-off; in the U.S. the term is the “haves” giving to the “have-nots.” At its worst, this association sees the well-off doing to the less well-off, imposing things on those in need of charity, whether those things are wanted or needed at all. So, to talk of philanthropy in such a limited context risks creating a perception of some in society as unable to help themselves, as reliant on the largess of others and of being unable to contribute anything of any value to society.

We are also concerned about the current financial climate. If all the public hears from charities and nonprofits is “we want your money,” there is a real risk that donor fatigue will settle in and the cash-strapped public will become increasingly resistant to the sector’s appeals for support. As volunteer recruiters, we don’t want to be seen as the second-choice option for those of less means. 

Finally, as Rob notes in his Third Sector Online blog, perpetuating a belief that money can solve everything simply makes the voluntary sector more like the private sector. Already we see nonprofits cutting back on services because they can’t pay people to do the work they once did. Is that what we really want – charities that limit their vision and ambition because one resource available to them becomes harder to obtain?

Organizational Perception

Making “giving” and “philanthropy” synonymous with fundraising feeds the negative attitudes of nonprofit executives who really are not that enthusiastic about engaging volunteers in the first place, perhaps because volunteers cost money. Or perhaps the executives are more comfortable dealing with the relatively straightforward absolute of figures and don’t want to deal with the creative chaos that comes with working alongside people over whom they have relatively little control (or at least perceive that to be the case!).  So saying “giving” or “philanthropy” becomes a euphemism that sounds less crass than “fundraising.” It seems to focus on the giver or philanthropist, rather than on the receiving agency.

Professional education for nonprofit executives perpetuates the problem. Take a look at the list of all the academic “centers for philanthropy” in the U.S.; notice the lack of the word volunteer in their purpose or course descriptions – an omission that often repeats in other countries as well. Only the City University of New York, Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and The University of Texas at Austin, RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs include volunteering by name in their statements (which doesn’t surprise us, given that Sarah Jane Rehnborg, a contributing author in this and past issues of e-Volunteerism, is associate director at the RGK Center). Two universities include the word “voluntarism” (Duke and Northwestern), but that refers to the voluntary sector, not necessarily to unpaid service. Robert Payton (quoted above in Wikipedia) was one of the founders of Indiana University, Center on Philanthropy (one of the first and well respected academic resources), bringing a special interest in religion and philanthropy. But then he helped the center merge with The Fundraising School and they kept both names. Guess what has the emphasis now?  So future nonprofit executives are learning very little about donated services.

In recent years, volunteering has moved from being seen as a one-way gift relationship to more of a reciprocal one, where the givers receive some benefit in return for their actions – skills to aid employability, a sense of fulfillment and much more. And yet, the narrowing definitions of giving and philanthropy, which continue to frame all donations as a gift relationship, are at odds with this development. Set this alongside the possible perception that giving money is of greater value than giving time and talents and we have created a whole new set of cultural and perceptual barriers to engaging a broad spectrum of diverse individuals into volunteering.

We know that volunteering can add real value to our organizations – especially when financial resources are truly scarce. If we want volunteer resources managers to be seen as professionals, we surely have an ethical duty to combat any efforts that sideline the potential of volunteering to contribute to the fulfillment of mission and vision of our organizations.

What Can We Do about It?

As always, e-Volunteerism challenges our readers to take action, even in small ways, to address concerns raised in our articles. But what can an individual practitioner do to make a difference when it comes to spoken words? Here’s a starter set of ideas:  

  • Speak up whenever we hear the narrow use of the words giving and philanthropy. Rob was able to do this in his blog post and reached a perfect audience. Many of you also blog, give speeches, write reports and communicate in important ways. Find opportunities to remind everyone that time donors are as vital as money donors. Anyone can write letters to the editor or quickly post a response online to a news story that limits the concept of giving only to money.

One of the responders to Rob’s blog, Laura Hamilton (also a past contributor to e-Volunteerism) offered an immediate way for UK colleagues to put this idea into practice. She shared that “The Guardian Voluntary Sector Network are hosting a live Q&A tomorrow (Wed 5th Dec) on How can charities encourage people to continue giving. I'd really encourage people to post up questions or comments that encourage the debate to focus on more than just cash giving.” There is still an online record of that conversation.  

  • Educate our colleagues in-house. Help development and fundraising staffs to see and articulate the value of volunteers as integral to the overall resource development strategy, both in terms of the immediate financial value of their donated time and their potential as cash donors at some point, too. Help middle and senior managers to see the current accomplishments of volunteers and the potential of volunteers to contribute even more. (For example, share articles from the journal’s archives, such as Betty Stallings’ Generating Funds for Your Volunteer Program: The Mindset and Methods and OUR Volunteer Program: The Management TEAM Approach to Enhancing Volunteer Programs.)
  • Seek to integrate thinking on volunteers as part of a continuum that includes all donors and philanthropists within our organizations. Some groups already talk of their “supporters” and the “supporter journey” over time within their organization. Successful organizations recognize that people can contribute to the cause in different ways at different times of their lives, and provide the means for people to vary their support accordingly. For instance, someone who is working may have little time to volunteer but may have disposable money to donate. At another point in time, the same person may have to limit a cash gift but start to give more time, keeping work skills sharp or perhaps developing new ones.
  • Write to university centers and inquire about the topic of volunteering. Is it totally absent? Buried in a human resources course? Buried in a fundraising course? Suggest that a guest lecturer teach a workshop within the curriculum.
  • Include the words philanthropy and giving in our own language when we recruit and recognize volunteers. We already know that the word “volunteer” comes with its own baggage and stereotypes. Who might be attracted to the invitation to be a time donor or a skillanthropist or engage in philanthropic service?Might be well worth a try.And use many different words alongside volunteer in recognition events, printed materials such as event programs and certificates, and in press releases. May as well inform the media, too!

So what do you want to add to this discussion?

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