Is Philanthropy Charity?

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“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The old proverb – attributed to everyone from Lao Tzu to Maimonides – still holds as true today as it did in the past. It also highlights a fundamental difference between two types of giving – that which expects nothing in return, and that which demands something from the recipient. For the sake of argument, let us refer to the first one as charity and the second one as philanthropy.


Carlos Slim, founder of the Latin American business empire that includes the continent’s largest mobile phone company, famously refused to join Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, where billionaires commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropic or charitable causes. The reason Slim gave is that he did not believe that charity solves problems. However, Slim, one of the world’s wealthiest men, has been a positive force in the lives of millions in Latin America through the jobs that he has created and the economic prosperity this has brought. Rather than committing his wealth to “charitable” causes, he chooses to use his wealth to continue to drive further economic growth. And there is nothing wrong with that approach.

In fact, in many ways this illustrates the nature of philanthropy as opposed to charity. Charity is unconditional giving, and has its place. It can help to lift the destitute out of starvation or stem the flow of AIDS in Africa. It is appropriate when people have reached the point where they can no longer help themselves. However, philanthropy is about teaching people how to fish – it expects something in return, whether that is labor in return for pay, or the expectation that the recipient will better themselves through education. It is ultimately about creating a reciprocal relationship, rather than a dependency.

Because of this reciprocity, philanthropy is very closely allied with entrepreneurship. Many entrepreneurs – such as Kashim Bukar Shettima – are also philanthropists rather than supporters of charitable causes. This is because their own experience has taught them that people only succeed when they have control of their own destiny and are motivated. Philanthropy is about creating the conditions for people to seize this control, rather than taking it away from them by giving them charity. Empowerment is the only sustainable way of bettering the human condition – charity has shown itself time and time again to be a short-term bandage, although sometimes a necessary one.


There has been a long tradition in America linking entrepreneurship and capitalism with philanthropy. Industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller from the Gilded Age of the late 19th century poured huge amounts of their money into philanthropic activities. The Carnegie Foundation, among other things, funded the creation of over 2500 libraries around the world to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” Carnegie knew that in order for a person to fish in our modern society, they need both information and education. That is a lesson that we need to continue to remember today.