What is Philanthropy?

Derived from Ancient Greek phílos (φίλος), "who loves", and ánthrôpos (ἄνθρωπος), "human kind", philanthropy literally means "the love of humanity". The French word "Philanthropie" was introduced at the 18th century and designated a "gentle, patient and selfless virtue" (Fénelon, Dialogue des Morts, 1712). A philanthropist is "an individual who, by a natural disposition and kindness, is prone to love every human being" (Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 1762). This disposition is not limited to being an abstract idea: it also translates into concrete acts. A philanthropist is "an individual who actively tries to find means to improve its peers' condition" (Bescherelle, 1861), whether they are financial, material or human...


In France, many words emerged in the Age of Enlightenment to name this social virtue that encourages individuals to help others: humanity, sociability, benevolence... and also, of course, charity. In Christian theology, charity is the ultimate virtue that refers to both the love of God, the love of one's neighbour (as a creature of God), and every benevolent act towards another human being. Philosophers and encyclopaedists from the 18th century then distinguished charity from a secular philanthropy that denied the divine grace as an origin of the love of others, and explained it as a natural disposition (Catherine Duprat, Le Temps des Philanthropes, 1991).

Philanthropists criticized the traditional Catholic charitable organizations that had been managing hospices, hospitals and orphanages since Middle Age (the oldest in France being Les Hospices de Beaune, founded in 1452), without tackling the root causes of the sufferings. This explains the "scientific" approach of many philanthropic experiences: the aim is to change behavior, to encourage savings, to invent and build new low-cost housings...

The 19th century was the golden age of philanthropy. Christians, Atheists, Jews, manufacturers, merchants, scientists, military officers, and even politicians funded innovative and ambitious projects with their own money to eradicate poverty, disease, or vagrancy. Through philanthropic societies or foundations, they anticipated what the State would then take over through tax-funded public services during the 20th century.

At the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the Labor and Socialist movements, philanthropy was strongly criticized. This led to its decline as well as to the rise of the Welfare State throughout the 20th century. However, the Welfare State's crisis and the appearance of new social problems with growing needs for funds and innovative solutions, has been concomitant with a new rise of philanthropy since the end of the 1970s (creation of the Fondation de France in 1969 and ADMICAL in 1979).

Philanthropy today

In our time, the word "philanthropy" now refers to "private initiatives for public good". Philanthropy thus differs from private companies as well as public institutions, since it operates for public good through private actors' voluntary acts. The word's common meaning has narrowed to financial gifts to projects in various fields: poverty relief, education, health, scientific research, environment, arts and culture... Philanthropy often means giving money to public purpose organizations (associations, foundations, public museums and universities, etc.). Nevertheless, it also includes in-kind donations and volunteering, which also play an important role. A lot of philanthropists also implement their own projects. Philanthropy refers to all voluntary donations by private actors to serve the public good.

Who can be a philanthropist? In the collective imagination, the term mainly refers to American billionaires (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett), first-generation heirs of powerful industrialists and philanthropists (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford). But there is a philanthropic tradition in most regions of the world, and not only very rich people give. More broadly, philanthropy encompasses all private donations, whether they come from "major donors" (who can create their own foundation to distribute their funds) or "small donors" whose combined donations provide for the largest NGOs and associations. What about companies? They also contribute to all these fundings for the common good. While Anglo-Saxons talk about "corporate philanthropy", French people prefer to call it "mécénat d'entreprise", or "corporate patronage" (a term that was first promoted by Jacques Rigaud in the 1980s).