With all the focus on the growth of the philanthropy sector both corporate and personal, urban and rural, retired persons and youth – one would think that “philanthropy” was becoming a common enough concept. But, in fact, I am reminded on a daily basis that uttering “philanthropy” causes a raise of the eyebrows, a clouding of the eyes, or a slight shuffle of the feet. I read these responses as general either complete boredom at the thought of philanthropy or a lack of understanding what philanthropy is and could be.

And on many levels, I understand exactly what these people are saying.

Let’s take a look at the word: philanthropy. If I didn’t know what it meant, I would think it sounded like a scientific study of something or other. Something stodgy, stuffy, boring.

According to old standards, philanthropy is boring. The image is often a bunch of rich folks writing out checks to museums and cultural events from their oak-lined, Persian carpeted offices. It’s of coiffed blue hair, diamonds hanging on thin fingers and overpriced cigars.

Even if hipsters like Bono, George Clooney and the Jolie and Pitt duo are challenging this image we are still left with the distinct feeling that philanthropy is for them, not little ‘ole me.

But according to the American Heritage Dictionary, philanthropy is:

  1. The effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind, as by charitable aid or donations.
  2. Love of humankind in general.

So essentially any joe or jane who has half a heart and desires a more positive future is, technically, a philanthropist. Somehow, somewhere along the way, by misfortune or by bad marketing, we have managed to sell off the concept of philanthropy to the less than 1% of the population that we classify as really, really rich.

But think of what we could accomplish if the other 99% (or, more precisely, the disputable 60% living above poverty) of the population was able to hop on the philanthropy bandwagon too. Some are. Most aren’t. And considering the seemingly regular reporting on the measurement and transparency foibles throughout the nonprofit sector, people certainly are being wooed none too seductively.

What must we do to undo the terrible mess we’ve made of the word philanthropy?
What can we do to take it back to ensure that all kind hearted do-gooders understand their philanthropic identity and actively promote others toward good old giving?