What is philanthropy today? How has philanthropy developed since ancient Greece?
If there is one consensus amongst the philanthropist community, it is that modern philanthropy has a father: Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919).
Carnegie, a Scottish-born industrialist author, wrote a series of articles, the best-known of which, the “Gospel of Wealth,” was published in 1889. Carnegie built an empire in the steel industry in the US and changed the very nature of philanthropy for the decades to come. In 1911, in New York City, he set up the Carnegie Corporation, which still today remains known as one of the most innovative philanthropic foundations. In his time, he was the wealthiest man in the United States.
At the age of just 35, having accumulated an immense fortune, he resigned to live on an income of $50,000 a year, devoting his remaining fortune to philanthropic causes. When quoted, his most famous saying is undoubtedly this very striking sentence: “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.”
So, what made Carnegie such a reference point that he is still known today as the father of modern philanthropy? Couldn’t we just say that he was (an extremely) generous person? That would be such an easy and pleasant conclusion, but it is not so.
Carnegie was a pioneer. Carnegie was a visionary.
A pioneer because he brought, for the first time, the mindset of trustees and corporations into the Art of Giving.
A pioneer, because, in his own words, “of every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that $950 is unwisely spent,” questioning the philanthropic community on the matter of best practice, which is still today, a much-debated issue.
A pioneer, because he distanced philanthropy from the mere character of generosity and kindness. He transformed philanthropy into an action of higher human character, because “to try to make the world in some way better than you found it, is to have a noble motive in life.”
In her giving pledge, Chinese business-women, You Zhonghui, recalled a saying that embodies Chinese wisdom: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Pioneer Carnegie, on the other side of the world and in another time, somehow shared the same philosophy when saying that in “charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves.”
But from all his writings, a thought very seldom quoted sublimely defines the visionary man that Carnegie was. In his words, philanthropy should adapt, as “conditions upon earth inevitably change.” Simple, but quite innovative: philanthropy must follow and adapt to social changes.
For this alone, he was an extraordinary visionary.
By his action of giving back the fortune he made as a young immigrant to the United States, Carnegie clearly understood that philanthropy was about long-term commitment; about strategic and institutionalized thinking; and that philanthropists must understand the world and the societies in which they live.
Did Carnegie impact his time and the society in which he lived? Most certainly, as his corporation invested in education, knowledge, health, art and culture: what was needed in his time and place.
Philanthropy, a most poverty-alleviating concept, turned into a frame of modern thinking in which the action of giving back must be strategically planned and represent a long-term commitment, if not the commitment of a lifetime.
Travelling back to our side of the world, if Carnegie would have been a Chinese, an Indian, or a Filipino, would the “Gospel of Wealth” be written with the same philosophy? We will never know, because Carnegie’s time has passed. But what we can try to understand today in a transcultural approach, is where modern philanthropy is heading to.
*President, Associação Internacional
de Filantropia (Macau)
Macau Daily Times is the official media partner
of the Associação Internacional de Filantropia (Macau).