Tag Archives: altruism

Is philanthropy really altruistic?

hand_heartThat may seem like a ridiculous question. If someone donates money to help other people or causes, clearly he or she is being altruistic. But hold on a minute. What happens if you enjoy or take pride in the support you provide?

In our interviews, more than one of Canada’s top givers questioned whether philanthropy was truly altruistic. Honey Sherman made the point succinctly. “If you feel satisfied about your help with [causes] then you are no longer being totally altruistic.” Or as Aditya Jha put it, “Philanthropy is giving to yourself.”

For those who are uncomfortable with the tension between philanthropy and altruism, Honey provided reassurance when she told us, “It’s okay by the way to do a selfless thing for selfish reasons.”

Seth Godin picks up the point in a recent blog post appropriately titled Narcissistic Altruism. He rightly contends that, “Everyone who does good things does them because it makes them feel good, because the effort and the donation is worth more than it costs.”

It’s interesting that so many of those who give the most in Canada told us about the many ways in which they have benefitted from their philanthropy. Maybe Honey Sherman is right when she says, “there’s no such thing as true altruism.”


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Why philanthropy isn’t altruistic

In one of our interviews, a prominent Canadian philanthropist shared that she believed there is no such thing as altruism in philanthropy.  We were shocked. Together with her husband she has donated tens of millions of dollars, and together they have one of the largest foundations in Canada. How could she possibly say there was no altruism in philanthropy?  Upon deeper reflection, it appears she may be right.

Wikipedia defines altruism as “the renunciation of the self, and an exclusive concern for the welfare of others.”  It is all about the other person. Philanthropy, on the other hand, literally means (according to Wikipedia) “the love of humanity.” In modern practical terms, it is “private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life”. There is a significantly different tone in these two definitions. One is selfless, possibly even detrimental to oneself. The other is focused on one’s “love”, “quality of life” and other aspects not included in these definitions such as esteem, legacy, camaraderie and self satisfaction.

It’s also important to clarify that our interviews are with those making major gifts and therefore our frame of reference for this discussion involves support for an organization that would generally warrant the naming or establishment of  something meaningful in perpetuity.

A fundraising approach focused purely on altruism doesn’t work most of the time. The average philanthropist is worldly, they know about the ills, struggles, and injustices of humanity around the world. They know that people are starving, some don’t have access to basic medicine, abuse is rampant, illiteracy is still excruciatingly high, and the cure for Alzheimer’s has yet to be discovered. They are not suddenly exposed to these realities by the fundraiser that walks into their office. Yet, in most instances, and despite this knowledge, they have not chosen to voluntarily part with their money – at least not until they were asked, inspired, cajoled, and/or pressured to do so.

Often, the philanthropist doesn’t make the decision to give until there is a building to put her name on or another naming opportunity to establish recognition in perpetuity. Perhaps the decision is based on the admiration of others or a deep sense of self satisfaction. This is because philanthropy is not altruistic. Rather, it is the confluence of altruism with egoism. Philanthropy is where selflessness and self-centeredness meet.

One could argue that even those with purely altruistic motives are effectively providing some self-validation for themselves, to assure that they “sleep better at night”. In fact, one of the few questions from our interviews that resulted in consistent responses was, “what about your philanthropy keeps you up at night?” While we would have expected that there may be philanthropy-related issues that would keep them awake at night, that proved not to be the case.  Even some of the most seasoned philanthropists, for whom philanthropy was now their primary pre-occupation, said that their philanthropy was having the opposite effect. They felt better about themselves, their lives, and consequently slept just fine.

The reality of philanthropy is that it is, at least in part, about creating a good feeling, leaving a legacy, feeling part of a community, fulfilling personal aspirations, and the confidence-boosting knowledge that through our actions we can somehow change the world. The vehicle for these goals is a cause that will somehow benefit humanity.

Ultimately, whether philanthropy is altruistic or not is relatively academic. However, there is a clear message for professionals in the fundraising arena. Simply appealing to the philanthropist’s altruism is oversimplifying the motivations for giving, and will ultimately limit any solicitor’s success.

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