In a 1970 New York Times article, the Chicago economist Milton Friedman famously wrote, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”
Influenced by these ideas, and as a facet of the expansion of civil society, charitable and philanthropic activity among voluntary associations and rich benefactors became a widespread cultural practice.
Philanthropy began to reach its modern form in the Age of Enlightenment — after the Wars of Religion in 17th century Europe. But it was the Progressives’ promotion of “collective responsibility”, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, that set American mass philanthropy on its course. The great expansion of mass giving led to the professionalization of philanthropy. Before and during World War 1, volunteers raised more money. But after the war, full-time professionals organized specialized fundraising firms and sold their services to colleges, churches, hospitals, and cultural institutions.
According to Philanthropy expert and author, Oliver Zunz, “In the years between 1913 and 1920 we fought World War I, amended the US Constitution to allow for a federal income tax, and incorporated several major foundations. The connection among these events is not the one you might expect. The foundations preceded the taxes. The income tax financed some of the costs of the war, but a large part was paid for by the voluntary purchase of bonds. And the sale of war bonds by community groups and the fervor with which neighbors engaged around this cause laid the groundwork for direct mail, workplace giving campaigns, viral fundraising, and many of the other mainstays of today’s charitable world.”
In the movement from “charity” to “philanthropy” the contributions of America’s Good Samaritans, as they were enacted in the past, disappear into the fold of large-scale, philanthropic institutions.
A philanthropist is someone who engages in philanthropy; that is, someone who donates his or her time, money, and/or reputation to charitable causes. However, like capitalism, philanthropy is not managed. As a result, there is considerable variation in terms of how much individuals actually give. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison, the three wealthiest Americans, according to the Forbes list, have all agreed to give away at least 95 percent of their wealth. They are among some of the biggest philanthropic contributors in the United States.
Philanthropy is all about choices: the choice to give, the choice of how to give and who to give it to, even the choice of when to declare victory or admit failure. According to a research firm, the DaVinci Institute, philanthropy itself is in a constant state of transition. As it continues to transform, it will evolve into a new voice of democracy, allowing people to vote with their money, applying targeted amounts of resources to specific causes, issues and noble agendas without waiting from approval by the power elite.