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What is a Philanthropist?

By Ron Marr
Updated May 23, 2024
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By its most conventional definition, a philanthropist is a person, usually quite wealthy, who donates large sums of money to individuals, groups, or organizations that champion a worthy cause. A philanthropist may also donate land, products, food, goods, services, or even time. Such an individual really need not be wealthy; in the vast majority of cases, people who practice philanthropy comes from all sorts of economic backgrounds.

While those that make huge benefactions are often publicized heavily in the media and lauded with awards and dinners, a philanthropist is anyone who gives of himself without expectation of reward or payment. In its finest form, philanthropy is an altruistic gesture bereft of any thought of compensation or a quid pro quo. It could be reasonably argued that philanthropy is the art of sharing one's good fortune with others; simply, it is an act of human kindness.

A philanthropist could be considered the person who spends time volunteering at a local humane society, or the individual who makes time to read stories to the blind. It could be the teenager who spends a few hours visiting with elderly shut-ins, the woman who becomes a mentor to a child, or anyone who gives money to a telethon or disaster relief fund. Most people who engage in philanthropy are unknown and neither desire nor seek recognition for their generous actions.

The most well-known philanthropists in history do tend to be the wealthiest, primarily because of the sheer magnitude of their endowments. In the late 19th century, the Scottish born Andrew Carnegie, founder of the Carnegie Steel Company, contributed over $350 million US Dollars (USD) to various causes. Carnegie's largess led to the creation of the renowned Carnegie Hall, as well as numerous trusts dedicated to education and peace. The philanthropist is perhaps best remembered for funding the construction of over 2,800 public libraries across the United States.

In more recent times, Warren Buffett, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Berkshire Hathaway investment group, established the largest bequest in recorded history. In 2006, Buffett announced that, upon his death, the majority of his $31 billion US Dollar (USD) fortune would transfer to the charitable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other wealthy philanthropists prefer to remain anonymous. In 2009, nearly $50 million US Dollars (USD) was given to eight American universities by an unknown contributor. The sole stipulation included with these massive offerings was that the recipients make no effort to identify the donor.

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Discussion Comments
By BambooForest — On Feb 28, 2011

Many people also give through their churches in the form of tithing. Though somewhat old fashioned, this can be very admirable. The importance is to ensure that your church or religious organization gives to causes that you yourself value.

By helene55 — On Feb 26, 2011

It's interesting how people have such differing attitudes towards celebrity donors. When the Haiti earthquake happened, I remember that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt donated 1 million dollars- quite a sum. And yet many people criticized them for not giving more, despite the fact that they both act far less these days because they have so many children to take care of.

Meanwhile, John Travolta was flying his private plane to disaster sites, armed with volunteers- except that they were all Scientologists, who have beliefs about medicine which are widely regarded as being unhelpful at best and disastrous at worst. And yet he was applauded. It makes no sense sometimes.

By sapphire12 — On Feb 25, 2011

I really admire anyone who gives to charity, but it makes sense that we rely so much on the philanthropic acts of celebrities and the very rich. They inspire us to take notice of problems which we might otherwise ignore. No, we can't do the same things someone with several million or even billion dollars at his or her disposal can, but we can do something.

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