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What does a Philanthropist do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A philanthropist is a person who engages in activities which are designed to benefit people and society. These activities can range from donating to a college endowment which is used to provide scholarships to establishing a charitable organization which conducts research on diseases and searches for new treatment and prevention techniques. While philanthropy is often associated with people who are wealthy, because they have more resources to donate to philanthropy, people in a wide range of social and economic classes can engage in philanthropy, and several religions actually specifically mandate that their followers regularly engage in charity.

The term “philanthropist” literally means “lover of man,” and as it implies, philanthropists are generally altruistic in nature, rather than engaging in activities which will directly benefit them in addition to contributing to other people. Philanthropists are often rewarded for their actions with tax breaks, an increase in social status, and other benefits, but most claim altruism as a motivation, and some prefer to remain anonymous so that the focus is on the benefits being provided, rather than the person contributing them.

Philanthropists can donate money, time, skills, and material goods to causes they support. They often fill a gap, providing benefits where none are available, or sensing an area of weakness and supporting it. For example, a philanthropist in an urban area might note that city services to the homeless fall short of the need, and he or she might decide to open a services center for the homeless to create more of a safety net, and to avoid the entanglements which are often associated with government organizations.

Many branches of the arts rely heavily on charitable contributions to continue, with ballets, museums, and other centers of the arts being funded by contributions from philanthropists and charitable organizations which pool the resources of many donors. A philanthropist may opt to contribute to such organizations rather than giving to causes directly, under the assumption that the board members of the organization may be better equipped to best determine how, where, and when the funds should be used.

Psychologists have noted in several studies that altruistic acts appear to generate feelings of satisfaction and reward in the brain, suggesting that humans are actually hardwired to engage in charitable activities and to help each other in times of need. This may be one reason why a person becomes a philanthropist, although wealthy individuals also experience tremendous social pressure to engage in charitable activities, and they may be censured for failing to contribute to various charitable causes.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On May 22, 2012

@bagley79 - Whenever I hear about anonymous donors to organizations, I am always curious about who they are as well.

If I was a wealthy philanthropist, I think I would prefer to remain anonymous. It seems to kind of defeat the purpose of being altruistic if you want everyone to know about it.

I also think there is a lot of responsibility that goes along with being a wealthy philanthropist.

Its seems like you often hear about how wealthy individuals get requests from everyone to help them out. I would be more interested in helping someone who I felt was very deserving of the funds.

There would always be situations where people requested money that were well deserving, but somehow it seems different if you make the offer before they ask for it.

By bagley79 — On May 22, 2012

I am a big fan of public television, and our local station has several fund raising events through the year.

During most of these events, they have an anonymous donor who will donate a certain amount of dollars for every new member who joins.

I am always curious if this is the same philanthropist or if it is someone different each time.

Without these donations I doubt that public television would be as successful as it has been.

The older I get, the more I enjoy this quality programming. I like to support them every year with a financial donation, but would certainly not consider myself wealthy or a philanthropist.

By golf07 — On May 21, 2012
We recently attended the graduation ceremony of our daughter from a local community college.

During the ceremony they gave an honorary degree to a woman who was 101 years old. Her husband was no longer living, but for many years they gave money to this college.

They believed in the power and importance of education, and wanted to find a way to help those who could not afford to pay for it. With the money they donated, they were able to provide scholarships for around 600 people to attend college.

It didn't sound like they were wealthy people, but they just believed in the cause, and did what they could to support it. I don't imagine they ever really imagined themselves as philanthropists, but just wanted to make a difference in their community.

By Izzy78 — On May 21, 2012

I'm not sure I believe that any philanthropic action is necessarily altruistic. Like others have mentioned, someone might donate a lot of money to a university to have a building named after them. Sure, they are benefiting the future students with a new facility, but would they be making that donation if they weren't getting something more out of it?

You could also make the argument for anonymous donations, but I still think there is always at least some ulterior motive. Just because the donation is anonymous to the public doesn't usually mean it is anonymous to the individuals inside an organization. Donating your money in that way will still help out someone in some way, but there may also be the benefit of political support or some other favor down the road.

By Mykol — On May 20, 2012

@StarJo - I am impressed with the fact that the man who you talked about gave a job to people who were willing to work.

While I know there are many people who have lost their job and are looking for some kind of work, there are also others who expect a hand out.

If I was a philanthropist, I think one of the things I would be most concerned about is the way any money I donated was used.

I would definitely want to help out people and organizations in need, but also would not want to feel like it was expected of me, or I was being taken advantage of.

By Emilski — On May 20, 2012

For some reason, all the philanthropists I ever hear about are men. Are there any famous women philanthropists?

In the past several years there has been a big deal about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett leaving their fortunes in trusts to fund various projects. Someone also mentioned Carnegie who had a nation-wide impact. I never hear about any women on the list, though.

I suppose part of the problem is that most of the famous philanthropists have donated millions of dollars and only recently have there been women running major corporations. Since women are typically not in a position to be making billions of dollars, it would be difficult for anyone to make a name for themselves when she is competing against the richest people in the world.

By JimmyT — On May 20, 2012

seag47 - I agree. The article considers philanthropy more on a monetary basis, but there are plenty of ways that people can benefit society that don't involve money.

I still think there is an important place in society, though, for wealthy individuals to donate toward various projects. I would be willing to say that the most prominent of the American philanthropists was Andrew Carnegie.

He understood the importance of education and donated a ton of money all around the United States for libraries and other arts programs. Just of the cities around where I live, there are three Carnegie libraries. I believe a lot of PBS shows and other educational programs also receive money from his trust to this day.

By matthewc23 — On May 19, 2012

@StarJo - That is pretty cool story. There is a similar individual close to where I live that is quite wealthy. I don't think he did anything quite so straight forward as giving anyone a job that wanted it, but the people this guy hires to take care of his houses and properties are all people who have fallen on hard times lately.

He always hires local individuals who have lost their job or have some sort of issue where they have trouble finding other jobs. He is also very flexible with people who are going to college or have to work second jobs.

I do think you raise a good point, though, that the definition of a philanthropist goes beyond just handing out money. In this case, people who may not get a chance at a job are being employed, but they still have to dedicate their time to receive the benefits.

By seag47 — On May 19, 2012

Some people have philanthropic souls but don't have a ton of money to give. They give their time instead, and it can be just as valuable.

I have a friend who works part-time and makes enough money to live comfortably. He has more time than most people to spend doing things other than work, and he spends that time on various charitable projects around the area.

He seeks out organizations in need of volunteers, and he devotes himself to this type of work. I think that it gives him purpose, and without it, he wouldn't feel right. He isn't married and lives alone, and doing philanthropic deeds fills that void in his life.

By StarJo — On May 18, 2012

Philanthropists can help out entire communities more with a continual donation, rather than just a lump sum. A wealthy man in my town walked into a homeless shelter one day and gave the gift that kept on giving.

He had received more money than he could probably ever spend from an inheritance, and he wanted to help out the people in our neighborhood who had fallen on hard times. Many people who had been doing well a few years ago had lost their jobs and now had nothing.

So, he walked into the shelter and announced that he would be hiring anyone who was interested to help maintain his property and his house. He gave a job to every person who was willing to work, and he gave so many people hope and a way out of the shelter.

By wavy58 — On May 17, 2012

@shell4life – I guess having a building named after you is one good way to become a famous philanthropist. I think that the best philanthropists are the ones who choose to remain anonymous, however. I tend to trust them more.

They are giving money solely to benefit other people, so they are less likely to concern themselves with the details of how the money is used. If a philanthropist has his name plastered all over something, then he might want more of a say in the daily operations of the project or program, since it might either tarnish or promote his reputation.

By shell4life — On May 17, 2012

Many philanthropists grant money to colleges, and in return, they often get either buildings or funds named after them. At my college, just about every building is named after the philanthropist who donated the most money toward either its construction or the funding of the classes held inside of it.

I think that my university's art program has probably benefited the most from the kindness of philanthropists. When times are tough, art is usually the first department to suffer, but as long as there are wealthy people out there willing to donate for the continuation of art education, the department will be fine.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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