Charity and philanthropy need to work hand in hand

By Marcus Coetzee, 1 August 2018.


Charity is seen as a virtue by humanists and all major religions. But it has also been polarising. Some people believe strongly in it and feel that it reflects the inner heart of humanity, while others believe that it cultivates weakness and dependency amongst the underserving.

Even the ancients grappled with the very practical implications of charity. Aristotle once said, “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter”.

Nowadays, the news is full of stories of philanthropists who have given their fortunes away to help others and for the betterment of society. A well-known example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to which several philanthropists have contributed a total sum of $44.3 billion as of mid-2018.

This article explores the concepts of charity and philanthropy, the similarities and differences, and when each is appropriate. It is not a deep dive into these topics, but rather a high-level review.

This has been one of the hardest articles for me to write. I’ve thrown out two earlier versions, started from scratch and done more research and thinking. Even though I’ve been in this field for 22 years, I’ve realized how my passion for social entrepreneurship had obscured my appreciation of charity. I’ve also learned when charity is the only moral and appropriate response to a situation.

What is charity?

Charity is a short-term and emotional response to a crisis intended to alleviate immediate suffering. It is activated by our recognition that we can and should strive to assist those in need.

It is a prescription of many religions, be it in the form of a once-off act of benevolence or an ongoing tithe. It is referred to by names such as alms (Christianity), zakat (Islam), tzedakah (Judaism) and Dāna (Hinduism). Similarly, humanists like myself believe in inherent value of human beings and our ability to work together to solve the problems facing our society.

It is my experience that charitable campaigns run by non-profit organizations tend to have two essential components. Firstly, there is an emotional campaign to draw people’s attention to how a group of people is suffering, and a call to donate resources (e.g. money, time, food) to assist. Then there are the logistics of getting these resources to the people in need.

I feel that charity has got a bit of a bad name. Authors like Ayn Rand, who have influenced many of the critics of charity and social welfare, once said that charity is not a “major virtue” nor a “moral duty”. She also said that “there is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them.” I suspect her phrase “worthy of the help” is a contentious issue as some may use it to blame those who are suffering for bringing it upon themselves.

There are several sayings that spring to mind when thinking about helping people. Here’s a popular one that you’ll probably recognize:

If you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.” 

This could be seen to imply that charity is somehow lesser than programmes that involve skills or entrepreneurship development and so on. However, this old adage does not recognize the instances where charity is the only moral and appropriate response to a social problem.

Consider the work of The Hope Exchange and UTurn. These are both good examples of non-profit organizations that tackle of the problem of homeless people living on the streets in the City of Cape Town – there are more than 7000 people without homes. These organizations provide charitable services (e.g. food, ablution facilities, clothing, addiction rehabilitation, social workers) to alleviate the immediate suffering of the homeless.

The work that these organizations do is both appropriate and necessary, and their beneficiaries are certainly worthy of their help – their unfortunate circumstances were most likely not of their choosing, and without help they will be unable to rectify their predicament.

Both these organizations also run philanthropic programmes designed to help homeless people to earn an income and support themselves so that they no longer require charity. These organizations also engage in advocacy to ensure that the City of Cape Town adopts an appropriate philanthropic response to this problem. We’ll unpack what makes these activities philanthropic in the following section.

What is philanthropy?

The concept of philanthropy is slightly more complex as it has two meanings.

On one hand, philanthropy stems from the ancient Greek word of “philanthrōpos”, which means love of mankind or love of humanity.

Philanthropists are involved in personal or private projects to do public good. The past century has seen an upsurge in the numbers of wealthy individuals (e.g. Carnegie and Rockefeller) that have committed much of their fortunes to helping others.

As such, charity can be seen as part of philanthropy.

However, nowadays, the term philanthropy is used within the non-profit sector to distinguish a social development approach from a charitable approach.

This difference is captured in a quote by Steve Gunderson, former president of Council of Foundations, who said that:

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.

To elaborate, the term “philanthropy” or “strategic philanthropy” is seen as the strategic approach to solve a social or environmental problem. It strives to get to the root of the problem and create a better equilibrium. Philanthropy requires time and complex skills to bring about the necessary social and environmental changes.

I think that DGMT is an excellent example of a foundation engaged in philanthropy. It was setup with endowments from Douglas and Eleanor Murray, and assumed its current form in 1979. It is very strategic and deliberate about how it works and the types of projects it runs. Much of its work is now focused on supporting children and young people in South Africa. It has developed an extensive theory of change which informs its decisions on where to intervene for maximum impact.

I wrote previously about the damage caused by the overhead cap which some donors unilaterally impose on non-profit organizations. In writing this article, I’ve realized that their thinking must be based within a charity mindset where maximum resources must be distributed to beneficiaries. However, even in these situations, donors should be mindful of the context and the additional services being delivered to those in need. But when dealing with philanthropic programmes which may not involve the delivery of resources, the concept of an overhead cap falls drastically short!

Issue of intention

The question of intention or “purity of heart” always seems to emerge when you talk about charity or philanthropy. Some believe that so many of our charitable and philanthropic endeavours are contaminated or disqualified by self-interest, such as a desire to feel good or be seen as a good person.

It is my belief that there is always some self-interest in all acts of charity or philanthropy, even if it stems from the “selfish gene”. Others may disagree.

However, this does not trouble me. As long as the primary intention is to sincerely help others, I think this is good and should be encouraged. I don’t think it really matters to society at large, provided the social impact is genuinely achieved.

Having said that, there are exceptions. I’m categorically against unethical behaviour, such as the allegations of sexual misconduct against Oxfam’s aid workers in Haiti, which has been in the news recently.

How charity and philanthropy work together to fix problems

For most of the organizations I work with, there is not a clear distinction between their charitable and philanthropic activities, or a clear handover from one to the other. Both charity and philanthropy are simultaneously needed. Charity deals with people’s current suffering while philanthropy supports beneficiaries to improve their circumstances while fixing any systems dysfunction that led to the problem in the first place.

I struggle to think of a non-profit organization which is exclusively a charity, since they have all acknowledged the importance of fixing any underlying problems.

The challenge is knowing whether a situation requires charity, philanthropy or both. This is tricky since circumstances frequently change, and the prolonged use of charity once beneficiaries have recovered from the immediate crisis and are strong enough, may have unintended negative consequences – it may create dependency and inhibit the growth of beneficiaries.

There are circumstances where charity, whether it be government subsidies or donations, may need to continue until government or philanthropy can fix the underlying problem, or until the situation naturally rectifies itself. For example, a homeless person may no longer require charity once they are able to properly support themselves and access the benefits that society has to offer. However, the problem of homelessness in the City of Cape Town is likely to persist, hence requiring ongoing charity and philanthropy.


This article has explored the meaning of charity and philanthropy, and their differences and similarities. Charity tends to be the short-term and emotional response to alleviate the suffering of people. In contrast, philanthropy tends to be the medium- and long-term and more strategic response to fix the underlying social problem, both at the individual and systems level.

This article also considered when a charitable response or a philanthropic response is most appropriate, and where they both need to exist simultaneously in a synchronized response to the social problem.

I highlighted the issue of “pure intention” when judging whether an act is charitable or philanthropic, and concluded that it does not really matter, provided a sustainable impact is achieved.

I believe that charity and philanthropy are both virtues which should be encouraged and celebrated, provided they are used wisely, and even if there is a little bit of self interest in them.

The lesson for myself and social entrepreneurs, is to appreciate the value of charity and the circumstances that require it. Sometimes it is the only moral response to the situation, while we work steadily towards a philanthropic solution to the underlying problem.

Thanks to Andy Simpson from Imani Development and Philip Anastasiadis for their contributions to this article.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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