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Giving, Charity, Philanthropy – Is there a Difference?

Resource Center - Foundation

by Andrea McManus

Over the past few years I have written and spoken a lot on the difference between fundraising and philanthropy.  I’ve challenged our profession to recognize that fundraising is an outward action that engages a donor in the act of philanthropy and that perhaps we should focus more on philanthropy as the outcome and fundraising as the enabler or catalyst. Philanthropy is a warmer word that calms that “fear of fundraising” that we often have to address. For every action there is an equal (and hopefully greater) philanthropic reaction! 

But what qualifies as “philanthropic?”  It almost seems that we have come full circle on this definition.  Consider that AFP’s National Philanthropy Day©, which is celebrated across North America by over 150 chapters, recognizes all kinds of giving as philanthropic.  I remember when the AFP Calgary & AreaChapter first decided to celebrate NPD 15 years ago.  We felt that we would need to find a different word than “philanthropy” because people would consider it to be all the usual high profile, large donors. 

Thankfully, we couldn’t find another word and today, for a variety of reasons, philanthropy is more widely understood and referenced in the media and in the general public. As fundraisers, I think we have done a great job at promoting a broad understanding that all giving is philanthropic in nature and through that we are able to promote even more giving.

However, it seems that there is an increasing rhetoric drawing a distinction between “charity” and “philanthropy.”  A friend of mine recently sought some advice about her family’s giving, and one of the organizations she approached was the wealth advisor group of one of our major banks.  She was advised that in order to participate in their program her family would need to make a commitment of at least $500,000 in order to “practice philanthropy.”  Anything less would simply be “charity” and may not deliver the outcomes they desired. 

Even worse is the trend within our own organizations (hopefully one that will not gain traction) to create titles such as vice president of philanthropy.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am completely in favor of the title itself.  What grates me is when the other VP position is vice president of development and yes, you got it—VP Philanthropy is for major gifts and VP Development is for “all the other stuff” (direct response, annual fund etc.).  This should make our donors who don’t have the capacity to give at the major gift level really feel good about their giving, don’t you think?

Webster’s defines philanthropic as “dispensing or receiving aid from funds set aside for humanitarian purposes” and philanthropy as “goodwill to fellowmen—an active effort to promote human welfare.”  Where in here, or in any other definition for that matter, does it define philanthropy by the dollar amount?  Isn’t philanthropy defined by values such as caring, sharing, giving back, change-making and many others?  Isn’t my $100 gift to a cause that I appreciate and care about a philanthropic act that advances the mission?

We know that people in higher income brackets generally give a lesser percentage of their income to charity than people in lower income brackets.  So that $100 gift for me could very well be a greater chunk of change and sign of commitment than $100,000 from someone else.  And the desire to make change, help others in need, give back or pay forward is not dependent on the number of zeros on the check (stick with Canadian spelling).  It is defined by your personal act of philanthropic giving.

So please, the distinction between “charity” and “philanthropy” is insulting and we should stop it.  Every gift counts!  Every donor counts!  

Andrea McManusAndrea McManus is President of The Development Group in Calgary.  A leader in the nonprofit sector locally, nationally and internationally, Andrea was the first person outside of the United States to hold the position of Chair of the International Board (2011-12) of the Association of Fundraising Professionals(AFP). 

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