Bar none my favorite part of my job is helping people give money away.
Sounds crazy doesn’t it? I’m a Financial Advisor; one of the core functions of my job is to help people build wealth so that they can live comfortably in retirement. In a lot of ways I’m supposed to teach people to be better hoarders, not better spend thrifts and philanthropists. But that is in fact what I do.
Webster defines philanthropy as;
The practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people.
The word’s origins are Greek meaning “the love of humanity”. According to Wikipedia the word was originally coined as an adjective by the Greek playwright Aeschylus to describe the character of Prometheus in his tragic play “Prometheus Bound” as humanity loving, (philanthropos tropos).
Prometheus is a mythological character from Greek antiquity whose name means forethought. He was the Titan who noticed that humans were poorly equipped for survival in harsh climates. In order to correct what he viewed as an unfair defect he decided to steel fire from Zeus and give it to us. In other versions of the Prometheus myth he is credited with teaching humanity about mathematics, civilization and government. Prometheus loved humanity and gave of himself so that we could have a better life. Zeus however was not amused so he bound him with chains to a rock and sent an eagle eat his liver. No good deed goes unpunished!
Today we think of philanthropy primarily in terms of giving money to charity. When I say philanthropist most people will think of some ultra-wealthy entrepreneur giving back to the community with some grand gesture that get’s a concert hall or a wing of the hospital named after him. Names like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates and Buffett come to mind. But philanthropy doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. When you buy a box of cookies from the Girl Guides (like I did on Thursday – yum.) or help your neighbor bring in their garbage bins from the street you are practicing philanthropy in its most basic and literal sense.
It feels good, and in the case of the Girl Guide cookies, it tastes good too.
Now altruism; that’s a whole other story. Altruism as I have discussed at length in my book “Meekonomics; How to Inherit the Earth and Live Life to the Fullest in God’s Economy”, is the virtue of selflessness and as many philosophers have debated for centuries can have no connection to personal benefit of any kind. Altruism isn’t even supposed to feel good because the feeling in and of itself is a benefit. For that reason many people believe that true altruism simply doesn’t exist.
Whether or not you agree with the idea that altruism exists or not it is clear that it cannot co-exist with self-interest. And because our society, to a certain extent wants to encourage giving, through tax and other social incentives the whole notion of altruism is irrelevant to our modern sensibilities. Altruism has been usurped by philanthropy.
When I counsel my clients on how to manage their estates and mitigate taxation I maintain that it is in their best interest to be philanthropic. I recently read two articles on-line expand upon the idea of promoting self-interest in conjunction with charitable giving. The first by Nonprofit Marketing Executive Kevin Feldman (read it here), pointed out the need to move charitable donors from simply being generous people to what he called “world changers”. More than just giving to get a tax break you don’t become a world changer without some skin in the game, without some self-interest in the results of your generosity. Feldman then pointed to another article from a charitable giving industry publication called The Chronicle of Philanthropy which cited a study on the behaviors of male vs. female donors. According to The Chronicle study, men respond better to advertising that highlights their own self-interest over more altruistic motives. You can read The Chronicle of Philanthropy article here.
What I find interesting about all of this comes down to the core reason for this site and the business that I am in. “World Changers” are fundamentally not altruistic in the classical sense, neither are “Humanity Lovers” if we are to understand the root word of philanthropy. Changing the world is always in some way about making our own lives more comfortable. Saving the planet for future generations, giving the poor better opportunities for work rather than a life of crime and terrorism, these are ultimately self-serving goals. Not to mention getting a little back on our taxes at the end of the year.
And loving humanity is not just what decent people do; it’s a command directly from God.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. [Galatians 5:13-15]
He may not have been rich, but the apostle Paul was a great philanthropist and he knew that done right, philanthropy makes the world better not just for the beneficiaries but also the benefactors.
So in this tax season remember the words of the philosopher and philanthropist Rodger Hodgson and “Give a Little Bit”.