Is There A Difference Between Charity and Philanthropy?

When talking about making a donation, either of time, money, or items like clothing or food, we often use the words charity and philanthropy interchangeably. We may say “Susan performed such an act of charity when she gave 10 winter coats to her local shelter,” or one may describe a friend as having a philanthropic nature. While both words do refer to the act of giving, there are some important distinctions to be made between the two.

Charity has been described as something we, as Americans, experience regularly in our culture. Early on in elementary school, we are taught to be generous and to share. In religious and moral settings, we are taught to think of our neighbor in their times of need. From change jars at registers with causes written on the front to food drives during the holiday season, we are called on to be charitable to our neighbor down the street, to even our global neighbor, on a daily basis.

By that definition, acts of charity all sound great – what could philanthropy possibly have on charity? Steve Gunderson, former President and CEO of the Council of Foundations, described the nuanced difference between charity and philanthropy as this:

“Charity tends to be a short-term, emotional, immediate response, focused primarily on rescue and relief, whereas philanthropy is much more long-term, more strategic, focused on rebuilding. One of my colleagues says there is charity, which is good, and then there is problem-solving charity, which is called philanthropy, and I think that’s the distinction I have tried to make.”

Philanthropy, then, is the preferred method because it not only seeks to help, but intentionally searches for the root of the problem and looks for solutions. It is great to offer food, shelter, and clothing to someone without a home. But how much better would it be to provide solutions to the problems such as hosting a job fair or funding an abuse clinic. Don’t get me wrong: charity, meeting the immediate human needs of your fellow human, is good and necessary in our world today. However, it’s important to keep in mind the words of a man known for his philanthropic actions, John Rockefeller, “The best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities—a search for a cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

So, as you go through your week, add the dollar to the disaster relief jar. Volunteer at your local food bank. Offer to take your elderly neighbor to the store. But allow your mind to start thinking in terms of the big picture – begin to think philanthropically and watch your community, your world, begin to change.



  1. Your comment sort of fits the old adage, Give a person a fish you feed them for a day, teach that person how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime! True philanthropy has an investment aspect to it where the ROI is hopefully a better world. Thanks for sharing that thought.

  2. Yes, Thank you for posting this important distinction!

    The words we use to create meaning truly matter !

    Now is the time for the world of Communication theory and Global philanthropy to come together to help build bridges for lasting change.

    For example, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Secretary General gives us clear and distinct concepts to streamline our response to reach the hardest to reach and most vulnerable: Our focus is to be on: People, Dignity, Justice, Partnership, Prosperity, and Planet. We can do this if we work together in the spirit of philanthropy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>