Giving and Human Excellence: The Paradigm of Liberal Philanthropy

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

Acts of the Apostles 20:35

Many of us are operating with an incomplete paradigm of philanthropy. The prevailing view today neglects what is ultimately philanthropy’s most important mission: enabling as many people as possible to participate in philanthropic activity. It places unnecessary limits on what both donors and recipients are able to derive from philanthropic activity, and it undermines the achievement of philanthropy’s full potential. To remedy this situation and develop a more complete philanthropic paradigm, we must examine our most deeply held convictions concerning what philanthropy is and what it aims to accomplish.

In the incomplete paradigms with which many of us are operating, philanthropy’s ultimate mission is to do away with the need for philanthropy. In the more complete paradigm to be developed here, by contrast, philanthropy’s ultimate mission is to expand philanthropic activity, which it does by enhancing the ordinary person’s sense of philanthropic efficacy. In this more complete view, philanthropists should aim not to put themselves out of business, but to replicate themselves. The ideal community is not one where enlightened social policies have eliminated the need for philanthropy, but one in which as many people as possible are philanthropically engaged.

This argument for a more complete paradigm of philanthropy has two parts. The first part examines two incomplete paradigms. The first of these, charitable philanthropy, manifests great strengths, but it is not without important weaknesses. A more recent paradigm, scientific philanthropy, has addressed some of these weaknesses, but it manifests others of its own. Each of these paradigms provides important objectives for philanthropic activity and has produced laudable results. Yet each fails to encompass philanthropy’s highest aspirations. The second part of the argument outlines a more complete paradigm of philanthropy, called liberal philanthropy. This paradigm builds on the strengths of the other paradigms while adding additional strengths of its own.

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