United Way: Charity or Philanthropy? An Historical Perspective | United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg
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United Way: Charity or Philanthropy? An Historical Perspective

Charity and philanthropy: Would you consider them to be synonymous? Which would you use when describing United Way as an organization? Up until recently, I understood the two words to be the same. By examining the etymology of the two words more closely, however, it becomes clear that there are subtle nuances amongst the two. According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, charity is defined as “the act of giving money, food, or other kinds of help to people who are poor, sick, etc.” or as “an organization that helps people who are poor, sick, etc.” Contrastingly, Merriam-Webster defines philanthropy, a word that did not come into common usage in the United States until the 1780’s, as “the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people.” What I find most interesting about these slightly different definitions is that while both are an act of giving, charity, at its core, is defined as giving help to those who are weak in some way. The philanthropy definition makes no mention of what kind of people are the recipients of help and, to me, seems like a much more modern viewpoint. It also points toward the idea of change and improvement, making life better for other people.

You might be wondering what the impetus for this vocabulary lesson was in the first place. I came across a lengthy article on The Hudson Institute’s website. The article, written by Benjamin Soskis of Virginia’s very own George Mason University, was titled “Both More and No More: The Historical Split Between Charity and Philanthropy.” Considering myself to be a bit of a history buff, I found the piece to be quite intriguing. Soskis examines the evolution of the term philanthropy from an historical perspective beginning in the 17th century. Much of the divide amongst charity and philanthropy, he explains, began after the Civil War, as industrialism increased and moguls like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller emerged. As these men with a large amassed wealth began to think of disposing of their fortunes, they felt dissatisfied with the charitable options of the time. In his “The Gospel of Wealth” Carnegie stated “Of every thousand dollars spent in so called charity to-day, it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent; so spent, indeed as to produce the very evils which it proposes to mitigate or cure.” There was a growing sense that charity, or providing material relief, did nothing to fix the problems that society faced, and many believed that it only perpetuated those problems. I automatically thought of one of my dad’s expressions when reading this, to use my dad’s expression, charity was seen as “putting a band-aid on a broken arm.” It didn’t solve anything. Because of this, people began to embrace the idea of philanthropy as a better alternative to charity. Philanthropy, though still about helping people, was about a strategic push for solutions and change. This idea of investing in solutions still prevails today. In fact to bring it back to Carnegie, in 2009, Vartan Gregorian, Carnegie Corporation president stated “Philanthropy is not charity. Philanthropy works to do away with the causes that necessitate charity.”

All this reading really made me think deeply about United Way and what we do every day. I’ve heard us called both a charity organization and a philanthropic organization. So which is it? Does it have to be one or the other? At the end of the day if I had to choose, I’d say United Way is a philanthropic organization. Through our Community Impact Fund, we invest in programs that achieve results and focus on reaching goals for change. For example, our Community Impact Agenda sets a goal of raising our region’s on-time graduation rate to 92.5% by the year 2020. This lofty goal is philanthropic by nature. We know that education can be a catalyst for creating brighter futures and lifting people out of poverty. By setting that goal for change and improvement, we are working as philanthropists. On the flip side, however, we also know that a child can’t reach his or her educational potential if basic needs are not met. Because of that, some of our work, providing basic human services, has to be more charitable by nature. The work we do here at United Way entails addressing community needs wholly. Big goals aren’t reached overnight, nor are they reached through a single approach. So to you, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, I say that charity is not the opposition—it is just one part of the toolkit needed to bring about change and work as a philanthropist. At the end of the day, I don’t think it matters how you categorize your giving—charity-philanthropy/tomato-tomAHto—what matters is that you give. If interested in seeing more about how United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg gives back for change in our community, take a look at our Prospectus. If you’re ready to Live United and work with us to address the most pressing needs in our community, donate now.

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About the Author : Allie Early


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