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People often think about charity and philanthropy as being the same thing. To those who work in development and fundraising, there are some very important differences. Namely, charity is a personal characteristic. It’s considered a virtue in Christianity, and it’s a feeling understood by many English speakers. Charity is something that’s internal, and it motivates people to give of their time or resources in the present.


Philanthropy is different. This word comes from Greek. It’s a combination of the words philein (love) and anthropos (person). In some ways, it’s bigger and more institutional. It’s not just a feeling or a religious impulse: it’s a love for all of humanity. It’s a desire to make the world better. Philanthropy seeks to address the causes of social problems and take transformative action to change the world. Many philanthropists don’t just give their time and money. They use their connections and push for change in government and wider society.


Charity and philanthropy have some important distinctions, but they often do go together. For example, Hurricane Laura will attract small donations from many millions of Americans. It will also attract the attention of philanthropists. The charitable donors will mostly seek to provide relief in the immediate wake of the disaster. Philanthropists will want to find ways to address the root problems and make those communities more resilient and resistant to natural disasters.


One thing development professionals need to be aware of is that, to an extent, this is all jargon. The way the public sees the issue of giving is different. People are much more likely to type “charity” into a search engine when they’re thinking of making a gift. That’s true even across income groupings. When it comes to steering donors into actions that will create long-term change, it’s important to understand and honor their starting point.


The other thing to remember is that charity can lead to philanthropy. Some of the young students giving $5 to hurricane relief this week will become full-blown philanthropists someday. It is never too early to start planting seeds in the minds of charitable donors. Recall that philanthropists have that same internal spirit motivating them to give. Charity and philanthropy will always be closely linked concepts.