The History of Philanthropy

Giving, in the form of donations, philanthropy, or volunteering, seems like so much an ingrained part of our culture and ideals that it seems strange that such selflessness would even have an origin.

Humans are hardwired to help one another; a study published in 2013 from the University of Virginia showed that the brain activity of participants was nearly identical when mild harm was threatened to the participant and when the same threat was extended to a close friend. We care about the safety and wellbeing of people in our lives nearly as much as we care about our own, so it’s not a shock that we would choose to help other people around us who we can identify are in pain. But when did all of this giving get started?

The word “philanthropy” itself comes from the Late Latin and Greek philanthropia c. 1600, meaning loving (phil-)  and mankind (-anthropos), or a love for mankind. The concept is as old as the world itself, as history shows us that humankind has long depended on the kindness of others to get by.

Ancient Mediterraneans had tenets of philanthropy that we still see today. In the laws that governed the land, Babylonian kings called for any of the ‘strong’ who bullied the ‘weak’ to be punished, and their folklore told similar stories of benevolent kings who succeeded while selfish, cold-hearted kings met a just and harsh fate. Similar ethos can be seen in the Ancient Greeks as well, whose models of tax exemption for charitable deeds is still used and borrowed from today.

Following the fall of the medieval ages, during the period of reformation, the status quo and social hierarchy of society all throughout Europe changed; the models of lords and servants was reformed as cultural monoliths like rural feudalism and the Catholic church lost their monopolistic hold on society. This returned a large portion of the power to the people which meant it was now in a position to effect change.

Following the first World War and at the end of an age of prosperity, philanthropy in the United States was once again a major tenant of societal actions, but this time it took on yet another different approach. Change began happening on a community level, where outreach saw a more inclusive and effective forms of philanthropy.

Over the years, acts of charitable giving in the United States has been on a steady incline. This is partly due to the desire for tax incentives as well as a renewed faith in the scientific evidence that points the the endless personal and societal benefits of philanthropy and giving in general.