What’s love got to do with effective philanthropy?

The term “philanthropy” is a combination of two ancient Greek words: “philos” meaning “love” in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing and enhancing; and “anthropos” meaning “human being” in the sense of our common humanity. A philanthropist is a person who expresses love of humanity through charitable efforts.

Every year, hundreds of articles are published on the subject of philanthropy. Writers, including me, devote their words to help philanthropists become more strategic and effective, designing processes and measuring outcomes with business-like rigor and accuracy. Terms like “return on social investment,” “venture philanthropy” and “measurable impact” are commonly used to guide modern philanthropic initiatives.

All of this effort to make philanthropy more impactful has led to many great innovations in the field and has resulted in some remarkable outcomes. What is missing in this approach, however, is recognition that the business and scientific methodologies alone are not enough.

The emotional component of philanthropy is, according to philanthropic adviser Peter Karoff, the “secret sauce” of giving that enables philanthropists to achieve greater outcomes for themselves and the people and causes they seek to help.

Philanthropic love, much like other forms of love, consists of several key elements which, when brought to the philanthropic planning table, help ensure a more effective outcome:

  • Compassion — Compassion is the empathy for, and the desire to alleviate the suffering of, others. Donnela Meadows, a pioneering environmental scientist and author, wrote, “The world can never pass through the adventure of bringing itself to sustainability if people do not view themselves and others with compassion.”
  • Respect — Donors must have respect for the people or causes they hope to help. In this context, respect means not imposing the donor’s will upon a gift recipient but, rather, engaging in deep listening about what is needed and what will best serve to accomplish mutually agreed-upon goals.
  • Trust — Philanthropy requires a high degree of trust in the integrity and goodwill of others. It is imperative to identify good partners in the social sector, and then, as in any partnership, have the confidence in them to follow through on their commitments and achieve their potential.
  • Passion — Identifying causes about which you are passionate is a key element of philanthropic love. The antonym of passion is apathy. Anyone who is apathetic about the community’s problems cannot be an effective philanthropist.
  • Integrity — Karoff writes: “Integrity is completeness and consistency of purpose, process and practice. Its soundness is based upon the moral principles of virtue, honesty and sincerity.”

Although methodology, measurement and metrics are essential for philanthropy to improve the lives of others, they cannot stand alone. Ensuring that philanthropy also includes the magic, power and impact of the qualities of philanthropic love helps to ensure that the outcomes, for the philanthropist and the beneficiary, will be maximized.

In the words of Beatle Paul McCartney, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”


Nonprofit of the month: The Denver Voice

The Denver Voice is a monthly newspaper providing opportunities for self-sufficiency to homeless and impoverished individuals who purchase papers for 50 cents each and sell them for a suggested donation of $2, keeping the difference as income to meet critical life needs. The Voice also offers classes to help develop business skills. Since 2007, more than 2,000 individuals have sold the Voice, and last year, 479 individuals earned over $306,000 from their work. denvervoice.org


Bruce DeBoskey is a Colorado-based philanthropic adviser, helping families, businesses and foundations with their philanthropic initiatives.