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“Philanthropy” is in one sense simple to define: it literally means “love of humanity”. Yet what this means in practice has proven far more difficult to pin down.

The historian Benjamin Kirkman Gray argued in his 1905 book A History of English Philanthropy that philanthropy is “probably incapable of strict definition”. Many modern academics and practitioners agree, and argue that it is an “essentially contested concept” (i.e. a concept that we all agree has substance, but cannot agree on the exact boundaries of).

Painting of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.
Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.

Part of the challenge is that the meaning of philanthropy has shifted considerably over time. It first emerged in Ancient Greece: the earliest usage is generally agreed to be the 5th century BCE play Prometheus Unbound by Aeschylus, where Prometheus is described as a “philanthropist” for daring to steal the secret of fire from the Gods and give it to humans. However the meaning of the word in the  ancient world was markedly different to our modern understanding. (it denoted a virtue primarily concerned with civic pride and responsibility, rather than any concern for the welfare of the less fortunate).

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the idea of philanthropy then largely disappeared for more than a thousand years; replaced by Christian notions of “charity” and “almsgiving”.

Sir Francis Bacon

It was one of the early forerunners of the Enlightenment, Sir Francis Bacon, who can take the credit for reintroducing the word to English in a 1612 essay (Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature), although he stuck to using the Greek word philanthropia. Other writers tentatively followed Bacon’s lead in starting to talk of “philanthropy” throughout the 17th century, but when they did so they were always careful to stress that it was an ancient Greek concept that didn’t really have any direct translation into English.

In the 18th century, however, the word finally made its proper reappearance in English – somewhat ironically via French, where “philanthropie” had become a part of the broiling mixture of ideas being debated prior to the French Revolution.

Queen Elizabeth I

Although the word itself did not properly re-enter the English language until the 18th century, many of the key milestones that paved the way for the emergence of modern philanthropy took place much earlier. One such milestone was the introduction in 1601 of the Statute of Charitable Uses – a piece of legislation put forward by Elizabeth I’s government with the aim of systematising the activities of the growing number of charitable trusts in England (and trying to bring their activities more in line with government priorities).

The Statute of Charitable Uses, as it has sometimes been claimed, introduce a legal definition of charity; but its preamble did enumerate for the first time a list of purposes which could acceptably be deemed as ‘charitable’. (A list that borrowed heavily from William Langland’s 14th century dream poem Piers Plowman). This strengthened the notion of philanthropy as something that was concerned with secular problem solving, and laid the foundations for the definition of charity that became enshrined in the UK through subsequent case law (including the pivotal 1891 Pemsel case). The influence of this definition also spread far further as a result of the many countries whose systems of common law took the UK as their lead.

Portrait of John Howard
Portrait of John Howard

We might these days assume a link between philanthropy and giving money, but this has not always been the case. Many of the celebrated “philanthropists” of the 18th century were men like John Howard or William Wilberforce, whose primary tools were campaigning and political influence. It was only in the 19th century, during the Victorian era, that philanthropy gradually came to be more associated with the idea of wealthy individuals giving money.

This was cemented in the late 19th and early 20th century with the emergence in the USA of a new breed of ultra-wealthy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan – who were vilified by some as “robber barons”, but were celebrated by others for the scale of their giving. These Gilded Age mega-donors established a new template that continues to shape our understanding of philanthropy even today.

Just some of the terms used for giving.

Right now, however, a healthy debate is ongoing about whether we need to cast off the weight of this tradtion and reshape our notions of philanthropy to reflect the realities of how people give today. A growing number of advocates argue that we should ‘reclaim’ the original meaning of philanthropy (which, remember, is “love of humanity”) and thus move away from our fixation on big monetary gifts and embrace instead a broader definition which gives equal weighting to everyday acts of generosity and kindness that may not even involve money. There are also calls to place philanthropy within the context of other traditions of generosity and mutual aid that have arisen among different communities and societies around the globe.

Doing this, some argue, could help to democratize philanthropy and rebalance potentially the problematic power dynamics within it. Others, however, caution that although this is a laudable ambition, there is a danger that if we make the definition of philanthropy too broad it could become far harder to keep focus and scrutiny on the particular issues raised by the giving of the very wealthy.

These are important and ongoing debates, and Philanthropy Matters will continue to explore and analyse them. However, it seems unlikely that we will ever arrive at a definition of philanthropy on which everyone agrees. And perhaps we need to be OK with that.

The US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in a 1964 obscenity trial that “hardcore pornography” is not something that can be readily defined but that “I know it when I see it”. Perhaps philanthropy is likewise something that we just need to accept that we will know when we see?

Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.