May 23, 2017
Guest Blog

A play of words: Does philanthropy = fundraising?

By Michael Alberg-Seberich

This is a tough blog to write because it is based on a subjective, perhaps culturally influenced observation. From the start of my fellowship, I have been confused by the use of the term “philanthropy” in Canada. In many conversations I have about giving in this country it seems to be used as synonymous with “fundraising”.

Let’s take a step back. When I joined Active Philanthropy in Berlin in 2008 our team had a great idea to raise awareness for philanthropy. We hired a young filmmaker and a cameraman to ask people on the street the following question: What is philanthropy? Have you ever done this with friends and family? The answers that we got were in part thoughtful and reflective but mainly funny and even absurd. Some people connected philanthropy to the collecting of stamps, some to an illness and others to some kind of geological discipline. I should add that German speakers were much more in the dark than English speakers. This little street experiment may exemplify the challenge around the understanding and meaning of philanthropy.

If you want to approach the issue in a more academic way you may want to look at The Philanthropic Reader that Michael Moody and Beth Breeze published at the beginning of the year. In this book the two editors have assembled texts on philanthropy from around the world. In the editor’s introduction it says about our subject matter:

The word “philanthropy” means different things to different people; it is a complex and contested term that can be ideologically loaded. Etymologically, it means “love of humankind”, but in practice it is often used to refer to significant donations of money to charitable causes. (page 14)

Moody and Breeze continue that “philanthropists often donate their time, talent, voice, influence and social capital alongside their financial resources”. They refer to this also as “elite giving” but point out that philanthropic acts are not restricted to a certain group and form of donation. Even though “Philanthropie” in itself is a word we struggle with in German, I have a sense that in the giving community many people would agree with Moody and Breeze’s convergence of its meaning.

There is no doubt that Canada has a very lively and, in international comparison, unique culture of volunteering and giving. Many people I have talked and listened to see this as one of the strengths of Canadian culture – I would agree with this. This is underlined by the World Giving Index and other means to compare giving, volunteering, etc. around the world. It is a meaning of philanthropy that is about the provision of time, talent, treasure, trust and ties. It is a meaning of philanthropy that is more than the raising of funds. Nevertheless, I meet fundraisers who are called “philanthropy advisors”, fundraising publications that are called “philanthropy news” and an obsession around “the ask”. Does this reflect the importance of fundraising for the charitable sector as a business model?

The gathering of funds is different than the giving of funds, even if the act of philanthropy is involved in both. Maybe this is a fine line that I am describing and that has confused me as an outside observer. I think it is a very crucial line because people who give also want to participate and want to be engaged.

What makes it even more confusing is that the term is often used interchangeably for the giving of (wealthy) individuals, foundations, volunteering, pro bono and, again, fundraising. One solution to the problem seems to be that the word philanthropy is used with a variety of qualifiers: “corporate philanthropy”, “community philanthropy”, “organized philanthropy”, “private philanthropy”, “behavioural philanthropy”, “grassroots philanthropy” and so on. I have started to collect these terms because I have not experienced them in such density before. I am not sure whether this is, in the end, specifically Canadian and whether there should be a special section on philanthropy in the dictionary of Canadian English – by the way, people tell me that there is a similar confusion of giving and fundraising in the use of the term philanthropie in French in Quebec. Still, I am convinced, that clarity of meaning can also help in fostering an activity or a whole sector. With a twinkle in the eye I would like to quote in the end good, old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who once said: “When ideas fail, words come in very handy.” Maybe there is a need to revisit the various meanings of the word “philanthropy” to enhance further the existing idea of a culture of “philanthropy”?

Michael Alberg-Seberich is the inaugural CKX Philanthropy in Canada Fellow and a Mercator Fellow. He has worked in the past for the German Youth For Understanding Committee and the Bertelsmann Foundation. He is an executive partner at Berlin based Active Philanthropy, and a managing director of Beyond Philanthropy.

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