Why philanthropy?

The meaning of the word philanthropy is human kindness. Human beings, who do good deeds for others, are characterized as philanthropists.

The understanding of philanthropy is as varied as the philanthropists themselves (for example, the pedagogue Basedow, Mother Theresa or Bill Gates).

Our understanding of philanthropy can be described in one simple sentence:

Philanthropy includes every voluntary private action for a charitable purpose.

We are faced with the question why we do not choose another – more familiar – term to describe our range of activity.

You could choose the terms public utility, welfare or civil society.

From an organizational perspective, terms like nonprofit organization (or not-for-profit organization), or non-governmental-organization (NGO) could be used.

  • Philanthropy is individual-related

Philanthropy places the focus on the acting person, whereas other terms have a societal reference.

Many philanthropic activities are not generated within an organized framework. This includes neighborly help, spontaneous donations or social movements. In a world, affected by individualism, philanthropy is the answer to why people support common welfare.

Every person has his or her own “philanthropic autobiography”, which means that everyone has come into contact with philanthropy at some point.

  • Philanthropy is value-related

Philanthropy expresses a value system which can be characterized (in the broadest sense) as human kindness.

Philanthropic actions express ethical behavior towards other people. This distinguishes philanthropy clearly from governmental and market-based actions.

A clarification based on values seems more important to us than a distinction based on economic purpose.

  • Philanthropy is universal

Philanthropy exists worldwide and has its roots in the beginning of civilization. Every world religion has philanthropic rules and recommendations. Nevertheless, philanthropy is free from political, religious or dogmatic affiliations.


Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS)
University of Basel
Steinengraben 22
4051 Basel

Phone: +41 61 207 23 92

Fax: +41 61 207 23 93