Philanthropy is the effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind.
NABBW’s Philanthropy Expert, Margaret May Damen, co-author with Niki Nicastro McCuistion, of the book Women, Wealth & Giving, sees the term referring to women’s best use of their time, talents and treasures.
She believes women approach philanthropic giving in a manner totally different from men, and says she would like to see a copy of her newly published book in the hands of every woman and man who sits on a board of directors or is involved with donor organizations so they can see the vital role women play in the world of philanthropy.
Damen’s book includes insights to the philanthropic role women have enjoyed, suggestions about how to become a philanthropist, reasons to do so, and ways to bestt to use our “time, talents and treasures.”
She says she felt called to write the book in early 2006, after three female icons from different generations died.
“That’s when I felt the urgency to write this book because we are on the dark side of the mountain in making a difference in this world.”
The women were playwright Wendy Wasserstein of The Heidi Chronicles; Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King; and Betty Freidan, author of The Feminine Mystique — each an example who encouraged and showed others the importance of leaving a positive life legacy.
As for the origin of the term, it’s generally agreed that the word was coined 2500 years ago in ancient Greece by the playwright, Aeschylus, or whoever else wrote Prometheus Bound. There the author told as a myth how the primitive creatures that were created to be human, at first had no knowledge, skills, or culture of any kind—so they lived in caves, in the dark, in constant fear for their lives. Zeus, the tyrannical king of the gods, decided to destroy them, but Prometheus, a Titan whose name meant “forethought,” out of his philanthropos tropos or “humanity-loving character” gave them two empowering, life-enhancing, gifts: fire, symbolizing all knowledge, skills, technology, arts, and science; and “blind hope” or optimism. The two went together—with fire, humans could be optimistic; with optimism, they could use fire constructively, to improve the human condition.
‘Philanthropia’—loving what it is to be human—was thought to be the key to civilization.
Philanthropia was later translated by the Romans into Latin as, simply, humanitas—humane-ness. And because Prometheus’ human-empowering gifts rebelled against Zeus’ tyranny, philanthropia was also associated with freedom and democracy. Both Socrates and the laws of Athens were described as “philanthropic and democratic”—a common expression, the idea being that philanthropic humans are reliably capable of self-government.
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.”