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Theories for Philanthropy: History and Background

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Finance
Wordcount: 2945 words Published: 21st Jun 2018

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‘It is easy to motivate people to attend fundraising events – just ask them to turn up and they will, because it’s the right thing to do.’ Discuss


Philanthropy is the act of donating money, goods, services, time or effort to support something that is socially beneficial, has a defined objective, and no material reward to the donor. Whilst the majority of people see this as individual charity, the other side to giving without material reward is fundraising and corporate philanthropy. There is a view amongst some organisers of fundraising events that little extra motivation is needed for people to attend – they will simply attend because it is the right thing to do. Of course, there are also those who see philanthropy as only occurring where there is some gain outside of money for the donor, especially when it comes to corporate philanthropy. Instead of being about the ‘right’ thing to do, it is more about the perception of doing the ‘right’ thing as a marketing and PR weapon. [1] This essay will examine the roots of philanthropy and look at some of the motivational factors involved. This will involve looking at marketing techniques, psychological and philosophical theories as to why people give. The aim of this discussion is to provide recommendations to fundraising event managers to help them better promote their events in light of the motivations discovered. The first section will look at the history and background of philanthropy.

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History and background of philanthropy

The earliest forms of philanthropy can be traced back to religion and the ideas of giving and charity within Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The idea of charity in these texts looks at helping the poor and those in need no matter what their faith or situation. This idea of charity set the beginnings for the secular concept of philanthropy.

Where charity and philanthropy differ somewhat is that charity has a commitment to the poor and helpless, whereas philanthropy is not so closely linked to the poor.[2] However, religious faith is still a strong motivator behind philanthropy even today because it instils the belief that giving is the ‘right’ thing to do and an important part of faith. In this sense, it could be said that people need no more motivation than their faith to give to fundraising events. However, faith cannot explain all aspects of philanthropy for those who are not religious or where faith is not an important element.[3]

Philanthropy developed into a concept in the seventeenth century to do with being kind and humanitarian, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was then to do with being actively involved in humanitarian projects, such as helping the insane or prisoners, and the abolition of slavery.

However, it was towards the end of the nineteenth century that philanthropy began to mean the donation of money to causes that would benefit all levels of society and not just the poor. The emphasis of philanthropy has shifted from just helping the poor to helping all areas of society. The government is now seen as the primary carer for those under or around the poverty line, whilst philanthropists look to benefit society as a whole. This of course does not mean that the poor do not or cannot benefit from philanthropy, but that the goal of philanthropy is now wider than helping just those who are poor.[4]

The modern version of philanthropy is very much to do with injection of money into causes and raising funds to help develop socially worthwhile projects. Philanthropy is not just about pouring money into something and forgetting about it, but about giving money so that results can be achieved. In fact, if results are not achieved through the donations then generally the donations to that particular project will be reduced. This is a method that wealthy individuals and organizations use to keep projects accountable and to have a measure of social control.[5] This social control may often be in the interests of the philanthropist and so it begs the question as to whether this is the only motivation behind modern philanthropy. If this is the case, then perhaps the idea that motivation to do the right thing is enough is no longer a valid way to promote or achieve fundraising. The next section will look at some competing theories of motivation with regards to philanthropy to see if this question can be answered.

Philosophy and models of motivation

One idea of motivation behind corporate philanthropy is obviously that it improves the image of an individual or business whilst also providing an opportunity to shape society in a certain way. In modern philanthropy there is no doubt that this is a part of motivation, but in many ways it acts no differently to idea of ‘doing right’. An individual who gives because they believe it is the right thing to do will give in the same way as an individual or organisation who gives because they perceive that others think it is the right thing for them to do. Corporate philanthropy is a part of business culture today, and companies see it as an important marketing tool – to be seen as an ethical, responsible and socially aware company that looks to give back to the community and to society.[6]

Also, there is the other side of fundraising that as a company funds are needed to be generated to be given by philanthropists, and so a good company that can benefit society will have a fundraising strategy. Mullin believes that the key to good fundraising is less to do with motivational factors and more to do with detailed strategic planning and advertising of the event is the key to its success.[7] For Mullin, fundraising works very much like any product with a life cycle of fundraising that determines where and when the best opportunities for gaining funding are within each project or event. Wendroff also believes that the key to successful fundraising is attention to detail and planning, and that there is no real need to look into motivational factors as much as there is to employ proper marketing and organization of the event. If this is taken care of then people will donate because of the feeling that this is a worthwhile cause portrayed by the quality of the event.[8]

However, there are a number of other theories with regards to the motivation behind fundraising that can help fundraisers. Sargeant and Jay believe that the motivation for philanthropy comes from push and pull factors. People give not just for one reason but for a wide variety of reasons depending on the social climate, empathy and sympathy for a cause, potential for results from the donation and other factors. These push and pull factors are complex and it is believed that more research into why people give and also why they stop giving is important. If this is not undertaken then organisations are in danger of spending too long developing ‘techniques’ to gain funding rather than really knowing why people want to give and how to then present their project.[9]

Other theorists see motivation behind giving as being somewhat different. The philosopher Immanuel Kant sees giving as a simply matter of duty, and that the act of philanthropy is an example of duty to our society. Kant doesn’t believe that humanitarian acts or charity are the motivations behind philanthropy, but rather the shaping of duty, society and law are the motivations behind donation. Whilst Kant’s view may appear somewhat cold and does not take into account the human or sympathy aspect of donation, there is evidence that modern philanthropy does on some level work like this. People give money because they feel it is their responsibility to help society with what they have, and this fits in more with a sense of Kantian duty than being charitable.[10]

Despite this, Kant’s view is perhaps too narrow and does not take into account the fact that part of giving is certainly to do with personal feelings towards a specific project. Even if someone feels it might be ‘right’ or their duty to donate, they are less likely to do so if there is no personal fit with the project and understanding of its social worth. Perhaps the view of John Stuart Mill is a better explanation of motivation in this case. Mill’s idea is that people donate because they see it as the rational way of making society most efficient. Giving their wealth to help socially beneficial organizations means that they are helping to maximise utility within society. Whilst this theory also seems extremely well thought-out and neat in that it would be great to think that philanthropists and donors need only learn about a project’s benefit to society to give, it again seems that there is more to motivation than this. It also seems unlikely that all donors clearly see this ‘bigger picture’ and that their wealth being offered to others in this way really is helping the overall efficiency and utility of society. If this were the case then philanthropists would all give to very similar and large-scale projects that could benefit as many people as possible – clearly this isn’t the case.[11]

Motivational factors and current climate

The problem with all of these theories is that they seemingly take a narrow view on motivation to try and pin down why people donate so that fundraisers can develop techniques to increase funding. However, the situation should probably not be looked at in terms of strict individual motivational factors but rather in terms of the current climate of donation and philanthropy on a local, national and global scale. For instance, whilst values in the UK and US on many topics are quite similar, levels of philanthropic donation are much lower in the UK (less than 1% of GDP) than in the US (2% of GDP).[12] Understanding why different national markets vary in level of donation can help fundraisers to understand why people are donating in a particular area or during a particular time period.

The US and the UK differ in their giving policies, with US philanthropy very much to do with ‘charity begins at home’, and that self-interest, social appreciation and public statement of giving are important motivational factors. However, in the UK the act of philanthropy is much more to do with the notion of ‘charity for all’ and the sense of duty that doing something socially worthwhile is important. This is done in a more private way and is not so much linked to personal interest or social acceptance. Despite the US and the UK being quite similar they have very different motivations for giving, and this shows how important it is to know the area and culture that the fundraising is being carried out in. This is perhaps more important than knowing individual motivational factors, because these are likely to change depending on the current climate and market conditions.

Certainly, since September 11th and the bombings in London the attitude towards giving has changed as people look again to help others and make more of their influence and wealth than before. However, things are changing again as a worldwide economic slump means people are being more cautious, yet demand for funding is increasing as more is needed from individuals to help support the government.[13]

In the current climate it looks like corporate donors will move away from corporate giving for PR, and move towards investing in communities to give them a strategic advantage in the future. With companies having less money and all individuals having to reduce their spending, it seems that currently the emphasis for fundraisers should be on showing worth and value to the companies and individuals who want to invest. Companies should also look towards diversifying their fundraising so that they can survive even if philanthropic donations are in decline.[14]


Although some people will always give money because they believe it is the right thing to do, philanthropy is no longer synonymous with charity. This means that fundraisers have to do more to get the funds they need than simply appeal to a sense of ‘right’. In an effort to find new techniques to generate funds, fundraisers have looked at the individual motivations behind philanthropy. Whilst the theories presented here all have their merits, individual motivations are too complex, unpredictable and diverse to base fundraising tactics upon. Instead, fundraisers should aim to base their tactics on the current economic climate as well as the fundraising climate within their locality or national culture. This is more likely to give general patterns that can be used to strategically improve fundraising. In the current climate, this means diversifying tactics and even looking to earn a certain amount of funds to offset the effects of the economic slump. Fundraisers should also emphasise the benefits to philanthropists with regards to social and corporate results, as anything that will give donors a strategic or social advantage in the future can be a factor in donation.

In conclusion, it is no longer enough for fundraisers to rely on people’s sense of charity and humanity to generate funds. Instead, companies should focus on the worth and social benefit of their projects to attract investors in their particular region. Whilst individual motivational factors are complex and need more investigation, local and national trends can be used to develop fundraising strategies.


Bennett, R., 1997. Corporate philanthropy in the UK: altruistic giving or marketing communications weapon?. Journal of Marketing Communications, 3(2), pp. 87-109.

Boney, R., 2008. Corporate donors adjust to economic slump. Philanthropy Journal, September 15th, 2008. Available at: http://www.philanthropyjournal.org/resources/special-reports/corporate-giving/corporate-donors-adjust-economic-slump

Boswell, H., 2003. Motivations for Giving and Serving. (Online). Available at: http://www.learningtogive.org/papers/paper33.html (Accessed 15th November 2008).

Bremner, R.H., 1996. Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Johnson, G., and Scholes, K., 2002. Exploring Corporate Strategy 6th Edition. Prentice Hall.

Matthewson, D.J., 2001. An analysis of John Stuart Mill’s Justification for Redistribution. Prepared for delivery at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Alexis Park Hotel, Las Vegas Nevada, March 15-17. Available at: http://faculty.fullerton.edu/dmatthewson/Final%20Mill.doc

Mullin, R., 1997. Fundraising Strategy. Directory of Social Change.

Sargeant, A., and Jay, E., 2004. Fundraising Management: Analysis, Planning and Practice. London: Routledge.

Slim, H., 2001. Not Philanthropy But Rights Rights-Based Humanitarianism and the Proper Politicisation of Humanitarian Philosophy in War. Centre for Development and Emergency Practice, Oxford Brookes University. Available at: http://www.odi.org.uk/hpg/confpapers/slim_new.pdf

Wendroff, A.L., 2004. Special Events: Proven Strategies for Nonprofit Fundraising. John Wiley and Sons.

Wright, K., 2001. Generosity vs. Altruism: Philanthropy and Charity in the United States and United Kingdom. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 12(4), pp. 399-416.



[1] Bennett, 1997, pp. 87-91

[2] Bremner, 1996, p. xii

[3] Boswell, 2003.

[4] Bremner, 1996, pp. xii-xiii

[5] Boswell, 2003.

[6] Johnson and Scholes, 2002, pp. 35-37

[7] Mullin, 1997, pp. 2-8

[8] Wendroff, 2004, pp. 195-198

[9] Sargeant and Jay, 2004, pp. 111-113.

[10] Slim, 2001, pp. 2-5

[11] Matthewson, 2001.

[12] Wright, 2001, pp. 399-400

[13] Boswell, 2003

[14] Boney, 2008


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