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.

International Philanthropies Worth Spotlighting

When it comes to giving, we tend to focus on the need we see at home first with the intention of fixing the problem on the micro level before fixing it on the macro level. However, often times we get so caught up in the work we’re doing around us that we forget that there are other places around the globe in dire need of attention and assistance. Thankfully, there are a number of organizations, philanthropies, and charities who haven’t forgotten and are working tirelessly on a daily basis to help those who need it most across the planet. While there are hundreds of organizations doing great work and making differences in the lives of people every single day, there are a few who have garnered a name for themselves and are worthy of spotlighting. Here are a few international philanthropies who have truly made a difference in the world around us.

  • United Nations Foundation

Born in 1998 from a $1 billion donation from Ted Turner, the United Nations Foundation helps to extend the reach of the United Nations. The United Nations is the only global organization that has the outreach and the footprint to truly enact change on a global level, and since it first began, it has consistently donated an average of $0.92 of each dollar that’s raised directly to causes and programs created by the United Nations.

  • Helen Keller International

Around the globe, approximately 285 million people are visually impaired with 39 million of those people being legally blind. Of all of the people with visual impairments, approximately 90% of them live in areas of low income. Helen Keller International, which was founded in 1915, is dedicated in the fight to save sight and assist the lives of those who are most “vulnerable and disadvantaged.” They are not only committed to proper eye health, but also to providing nourishment and helping to improve the health of those in need.

  • United States World Fund for UNICEF

Short for the United Nations International Children’s Fund, UNICEF’s mission is to is to protect and fight for the rights of every child on Earth through collecting funds to provide these children with food, water, medications, education, and emergency relief. For over 70 years, UNICEF has been active in more than 190 countries working to ensure that every child is given their right to “survive, thrive, and fulfill their potential — to the benefit of a better world. Their annual total revenue clocks in at just about $513 million.

Why Giving Makes Us Feel Good

It’s no secret that giving to and helping others is a great way to make a difference in the lives of others. What might come as a surprise is that giving might even do more on a personal level to benefit you than the people you’re helping. Giving has a way of making us feel good like nothing else can. On both an emotional and physical level, here are just a few of the ways that giving makes us feel good.

  • It combats depression.

Giving, especially in the form of volunteering, can help combat depression by making us feel connected to one another. Since volunteering and giving in general is an act performed for the good of another, it also helps combat depression by making people feel as though they have a purpose in life: being part of a greater cause that’s helping people. This feeling also helps to raise a volunteer’s self-esteem and can drastically boost a depressed mood.

  • It makes us feel good on a chemical level.
    • Giving us makes us feel happy, and when we feel this deep, personal sense of happiness, our bodies give off a number of chemicals that make us feel well, good. These chemicals namely include:
      • Dopamine – the feel good chemical that stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers and promotes the desire to do the same activity again.
      • Endorphins – the chemical released in the body when you exercise that helps to reduce stress levels. It also acts as your body’s natural pain reliever and can induce a sense of euphoria as seen in things like the ‘runner’s high.’
      • Oxytocin –  the “hug chemical” released in our bodies during moments of intimacy and connection with one another, like kissing or breastfeeding.

The chemicals released when we volunteer are the same as those we feel any other time that we feel good about the good that we’re doing. So not only do we feel rewarded and more connected to others, we also want to pursue the same actions for the same results.

  • It makes us happier.

In 2008, a professor at Harvard Business School named Michael Norton, alongside a few of his associates, discovered that, when given a certain amount of money, people felt happier about giving it away to someone else than they did spending it on themselves. Think about that: people feel happier giving to other people than they do giving to themselves. The kind of happiness that giving and volunteering can elicit is one that fills us all the way through, working from the inside out.