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Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission

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Philanthropy has existed in various forms in all cultures and civilizations throughout history, yet most people know little about it and its distinctive place in our lives. Why does philanthropy exist? Why do people so often turn to philanthropy when we want to make the world a better place? In essence, what is philanthropy? These fundamental questions are tackled in this engaging and original book. Written by one of the founding figures in the field of philanthropic studies, Robert L. Payton, and his former student sociologist Michael P. Moody, Understanding Philanthropy presents a new way of thinking about the meaning and mission of philanthropy. Weaving together accessible theoretical explanations with fascinating examples of philanthropic action, this book advances key scholarly debates about philanthropy and offers practitioners a way of explaining the rationale for their nonprofit efforts.

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1. Introduction: Why This Book?

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Oseola McCarty worked for most of her life as a paid-by-the-bundle washerwoman, and yet she managed to build up substantial savings through frugal living—she never owned a car—and slow, steady accumulation. She saved enough so that in 1995, when she was eighty-seven, Ms. McCarty was able to make a gift of $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi for an endowment that would provide scholarships for needy African American students.

Although her gift made her famous, Ms. McCarty could hardly have expected the attention she received. On the first anniversary of the gift, she was the subject of a feature story on the front page of the New York Times.1 Her gift was seen as an extraordinary act of generosity, both because she denied herself in order to save the money and because she was giving an opportunity to others that she had been denied herself. The Times reported that famous people had come to kneel at her feet, to sing to her, to praise her as a saint. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, and Harvard gave her an honorary doctorate.

 

2. Voluntary Action for the Public Good

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Most readers of this book can surely come up with at least a tentative answer to the question “What is philanthropy?” Chances are that these answers will vary widely, from “giving money” to “giving to help others” to the more literal and more general “love of mankind.” In fact, the same would be true if we asked scholars of philanthropy for their definitions.

We said in the previous chapter that to get at the “Why” questions about philanthropy, we will explore some of our answers to this question, “What is philanthropy?” And we have already given our primary (though not our only) answer: “Philanthropy is voluntary action for the public good.” The purpose of this chapter is to unpack that definition. In doing so we will have a chance to discuss many of the features of the broad and diverse subject of philanthropy and to clarify just what is distinctive about philanthropy and what is special about its mission.

We started this book with the assertion that the concept of philanthropy is a multiplicity. In fact, when we dig deeper we see that our basic definition itself embraces this multiplicity. “Voluntary action,” as we define it, encompasses both voluntary giving and voluntary service, the former usually referring to gifts of money and the latter to gifts of time. But we also include voluntary association as a third form of voluntary action. Voluntary association is the vehicle or instrument for philanthropic giving and service; it organizes gifts of money and time to accomplish public purposes. Philanthropy’s impact on society is only possible because of voluntary associations.

 

3. Because Things Go Wrong: Philanthropy as a Response to the Human Problematic

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Philanthropy appears in some form in all cultures and civilizations and through all recorded history. It seems there is something about the world, and about humans in this world, that calls philanthropy into being. Philanthropy is a response. But to what? What is it about the world that causes us to respond philanthropically, that makes philanthropy seem to be a reasonable response?

The purpose of this chapter is to begin to establish the larger context for philanthropy, the general condition of the world—what we will call the human problematic—to which philanthropy is a response. We follow the previous chapter’s summary of our broad conception of philanthropy with an exploration of how that conception fits into the larger world and how it relates to some fundamental questions about humans. We believe understanding these issues is essential to understanding why philanthropy exists—why it emerges as a human response to the human condition in the world.

While we will be making some bold claims about elementary features of the human condition and human nature, this chapter is not so much an exercise in presenting universal knowledge as an exercise in conceptual generalization and practical philosophy. Like much of this book, it considers fundamental characteristics and causes of voluntary action for the public good in human societies, but tries not to lose sight of the fact that this philanthropic action is always expressed in ways that are patterned by culture and history. Philanthropy is found everywhere as a response to inevitabilities of the human condition, yes, but what is defined as an appropriate or conventional philanthropic response is different in Elizabethan England than in Maoist China.

 

4. The World Can Be Made Better: Philanthropy as Moral Action

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In previous chapters, we have made the point that philanthropy is “moral action” and that the moral dimension of philanthropy is the most important. The connection to morality, we argued in chapter 2, is the defining feature of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, the essential dimension and unifying idea that most distinguishes it from government and the marketplace. But moral action and morality are terms that could mean very different things to different readers, so it is essential to clarify what we mean by them in our theory of philanthropy.

In essence, we have introduced two general understandings of how philanthropy is moral action, which we now address more deeply in this chapter:

1. Philanthropy is the primary vehicle people use to implement their moral imagination and to shape and advance the moral agenda of our society.

2. Philanthropy is about voluntarily intervening in other people’s lives for their benefit, to do them good and to advance the public good, and in this way philanthropic action is inherently moral.

 

5. The Social History of the Moral Imagination

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We have noted how the practice of philanthropy is common to all of the great religions and civilizations of the world. But each culture develops a distinctive philanthropic tradition that reflects other aspects of that society and the unique ways in which the people exercise their culturally shaped moral imaginations.

As a relative newcomer, the United States has absorbed the teachings of philanthropic traditions that preceded ours, and it continues to absorb new elements as we practice, pass on, and reinvent the tradition in our increasingly pluralistic society. American philanthropy is a mosaic of cultural influences, emanating primarily from the ancient Middle East and from classical civilization, but also from Native American tribes and from the Far East. Basic teachings of the Buddha and Confucius blend here with the folk wisdom of slave culture. Different variations of the “Golden Rule,” and of the adage about teaching a poor person how to fish rather than simply giving them a fish, commingle in the American philanthropic tradition.1

 

6. Philanthropy, Democracy, and the Future

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This chapter provides the final piece of our explanation of why philanthropy exists and, moreover, why it should exist. It describes a vital role of philanthropy in society and considers how to ensure the persistence of that role in the future. The first half discusses how philanthropy is essential to a free, open, and democratic society. The second half looks to the future and considers the need to be good stewards of the tradition of philanthropy and to pass it on through expanded education about philanthropy. Like all traditions, philanthropy in any society must be actively preserved and transmitted, or else it is in jeopardy of decline, a decline that would have far-reaching consequences. Understanding how philanthropy is essential to the sorts of democratic societies that we want is a crucial step in the process of preserving it for the future.

The future of free, open, and democratic societies is directly linked to the vitality of the philanthropic tradition in those societies. It is not possible for a democracy to thrive without a healthy philanthropic sector. This is an important part of the rationale for philanthropy that we present in this book. While we have emphasized elements of this role for philanthropy in previous chapters, we elaborate on these contributions here and consider their constitutional basis and democratic consequences. We illustrate our assertions mostly with reference to the example of how philanthropy helps ensure a healthy democracy in the United States, but similar arguments can be made about other democracies.1

 

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