Philanthropy: You don’t have to be rich

It’s usually those with money who say “Money isn’t everything”, right? Now you can even be a philanthropist without necessarily having oodles of spare cash. In a July 2014 article in the Guardian penned by Cheryl Chapman of City Philanthropy (London, UK), effective philanthropy today is “not about what you give, but the way that you give it”. Size should not matter, writes Chapman – “it’s what you do with your resources that can really count” (

I completely agree.

Agreeing with the notion that “you don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist” surfaces the obvious question, though, of “what is a philanthropist?” So allow me to share the working definition that I use:  a philanthropist is somebody who takes their own cash and spends it on supporting a cause that they believe in, a cause that they believe will improve their community, contribute to social development, and contribute to redressing social advantage/ disadvantage and crippling inequity.   There are many many kinds of giving, and many ways to give and many things to give of and to – but my working definition of philanthropy is that it is about giving financially (ie. money) and it is about supporting social development, and it is about giving in a way that itself is designed (in the giving process) to redress social inequity and injustice.  And you really don’t have to be rich, then, to be a philanthropist.

We should all, as engaged citizens, support social development.  We need to give what we can to causes and initiatives that we believe will make a quantifiable (or qualifiable) difference to the intended person, or groups of people, or issue.  We can give in small amounts, regularly.  We can give once-off when we have the money.  We can pool our resources and form a  giving circle, now becoming increasingly popular as a way of engaging in social development.  But it is about how the giving happens, what the intention is, what cause or initiative is supported, and what the long-term systemic impact is intended to be.  It is about active citizenship and standing up to be counted.  It is about being able to answer the question: “So what did YOU do to make things different?”.  Its the counter-balance to social and civil apathy and dependency.

Defining philanthropy as such is in no way intended to undermine or negate the enormous value of more immediate needs-based giving.  Such support is the very stuff of what makes us human, it is the essence of community, it is the thread that binds us.  People give to support people in crisis, giving food or blankets or money, for example.  We give to “the poor”.  We give because we want to “help those in need”.  We give time, we give energy, and we often give expertise and support.

I spent the last eight years working with Inyathelo, an organisation based in Cape Town, South Africa on communicating almost the same message.  In South Africa, we have been promoting the notion that anybody can be a philanthropist, and can give their own money to a social justice or social development cause geared at addressing imbalances or at correcting systemic wrongs.  I came on board at Inyathelo to establish the annual Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards, South Africa’s key point of recognition for our local philanthropy heroes.  I came on to establish the concept and the process and to make this philanthropy promotion agenda a national one.

The key message shared every year at these awards, and across the now +60 people who have been recognised through an Inyathelo Philanthropy Award, is that it doesn’t matter how much you give, it’s what you manage to leverage with your giving that counts.  It doesn’t matter how much you give, its what you achieve with what you are able to contribute. And it doesn’t matter how much you give, it matters rather that you give in a way that reflects a different social dynamic – one that doesn’t get played out across the haves/ have-nots divide, but happens differently, as co-creation, co-development, co-activism.

This last one is the tough nut to crack.  How do we give in ways that are about co-creation, co-development and co-activism?  If we can get that right, and share resources in a way that doesn’t recreate and entrench existing structures and dynamics of power and privilege, then we will be on the right platform to start creating a just society.


3 thoughts on “Philanthropy: You don’t have to be rich

  1. Are you distinguishing between philanthropy and charity – where philanthropy ” is about giving financially” and charity is “immediate needs based giving” (or doing?)? The latter is more achievable if you cannot afford to give financially and is none the less worthy – in my opinion – as it not only meets needs but, in many instances, also contributes to social development, to redressing social advantage/disadvantage and inequity.

    I agree that you do not have to be rich to be a philanthropist but it sure helps! And if you have very little money charitable works are also deserving of recognition – as I am aware Inyathelo has done in the past and will no doubt continue to do.


  2. I have never been comfortable with the notion that philanthropy and charity need to be differently defined. It seems to be common practice to define philanthropy as giving that contributes to or activates systemic social change and charity as crisis or needs based. I don’t think is particularly useful and sets up a hierarchy of accomplishment, for want of a better word, that is unnecessary.
    I hope that one day I will give this lots of thought and either rubbish my discomfit or come up with a strong alternative theory. In the meantime I have three thoughts.

    First thought; philanthropy should be defined at the point of activation and not at the point of reception. In other words one is a philanthropist at the very moment that one takes action to use all or part of your resources to help other people. Whether you do so in response to a short term crisis or a long-termed social inequity (and why would social inequity not be termed a crisis?) is immaterial. The act of giving, not the destination of the gift, makes you a philanthropist.

    Second thought: When outcomes are defined as being the result of philanthropy or charity I believe that they are done with little or no inclusion of how the recipients feel about the assistance (or means) that they are receiving. There is room, I believe, for understanding how the recipients of giving understand what they have received and the impact that their utilisation of the gift has had. Definitions may well be challenged.

    Third thought; If we are going to use terms such as charity and philanthropy I don’t believe that they should be boxed. There is a giving continuum which many people enter and exit at different points and times depending on the circumstances of their resources and the nature of the need. Resonance between giver and recipient is a much more useful way of trying to define how and why people give and what they believe outcomes should be. Philanthropy and charity have a place on this continuum as do largesse, benevolence, altruism, patronage etc.

    Our aim should be to build a giving community that is robust, resourceful, engaged, thoughtful, reflective and flexible. Our aim should be to establish a giving community that understands that our society requires different kinds of help at different times. Sometimes the need will be for immediate relief. Sometimes the need will be for systemic advocacy and change. Sometimes it will be short-term and sometimes it will require a commitment of years. How we term those processes is not nearly as important as triggering the act of giving.


    • Replying to Joce Ritchie and to Gillian Mitchell – you have both raised excellent points. Thank you for engaging. I suppose one could ultimately argue that nobody really cares what you call the giving, as long as you are giving. Which goes to Gillian’s point about where the action is activated, rather than the destination for which it is intended. I used the phrase “working definition” for how i outlined how I see philanthropy, because there are so many descriptions, and so many different words and terms in use, that it does feel useful to draw out some of the more subtle distinctions – particularly when it comes to discussions around money. Charity does have historical associations for me of being smaller-scale giving and commitments of time, energy and money. And it seems to have more democratic associations, if you like – of being more open and more accessible to anybody to participate. Philanthropy on the other hand seems to have been a term in our more recent history (and yes, I am sure not if you follow the etymology) of being the preserve of the uber-wealthy, the philanthro-nauts. The message I would like to communicate is that philanthropy is open to anybody, and anybody can be a philanthropist. I do come from a background of working in the area of active citizenship through financial contribution, rather than in the broader sphere of giving time, energy, skills, creativity etc. As a working definition, then, and as an area of work it is useful to distinguish what one is referring to as a way of boundarying one’s own focus. Again, hence the use of the term “working definition”. Perhaps it is time to look for a different working definition, one that carries less apparently divisive or hierarchical weighting. Please comment more – the engagement is important!


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