Who a philanthropist is an how philanthropy is 'done' is changing rapidly. New archetypes that did not exist a century ago are emerging and being embraced.
For around a hundred years the term ‘philanthropist’ has had a commonly accepted meaning: a wealthy person, frequently male, sometimes a couple, occasionally a rich woman, who created the legacy of a charitable foundation in a will as a result of wealth accumulated in their lifetime.
Today, the expression of philanthropy and the definition of ‘philanthropist’ is changing.
We have identified four archetypes of philanthropy that co-exist comfortably, highlighting the new options available to those looking to create a personal legacy.
Archetype 1: Traditional philanthropist
[pre-1900 to present]
A traditional philanthropist is someone who generates and accumulates wealth in their lifetime and dies without actively engaging in philanthropy.
Alfred Felton exemplifies the traditional philanthropist. Felton was a childless bachelor who, having amassed his fortune in Victoria’s gold mining boom in the late 19th Century, decided to leave it to the community via a charitable foundation in 1904. Half of the foundation’s income is directed to purchasing art for the National Gallery of Victoria, while the other half stipulates giving with a focus on women and children.
Fast-forward 110 years and the art purchased by only half of this perpetual foundation’s annual income is valued conservatively at $2.5 billion dollars. The other half of the funds has arguably had a similar impact in social and human terms.
Archetype 2: Contemporary philanthropists
[late 1990s to present]
This type of philanthropy is frequently used by couples who have accumulated an abundance of wealth greater than their needs. They establish a charitable foundation and use it to contribute to society through social solutions.
The contemporary philanthropist is exemplified by Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation funds global healthcare, development and education initiatives.
Contemporary philanthropists are wealth generators, wealth accumulators and wealth distributors. At or near retirement they engage in a breadth of philanthropic activity, and upon their death are likely to allocate further funds to their foundation from their estate.
Archetype 3: Persona philanthropists
[late 1985 to present]
Persona philanthropists use their business, reputation and personal brand to enact philanthropy that’s not always focused on money, but on other important facets of giving: time, skills or influence.
Sir Bob Geldof’s work for famine relief in Africa was an early example of the persona philanthropist. Jamie Oliver’s campaign to change school lunches is a more recent example.
Depending on their success and need, a charitable foundation may or may not be created. Indeed, money may not even change hands.
Archetype 4: Emerging philanthropists
[1990 to present]
This is someone who, well before they start a business, considers how the business can make a positive contribution to society. Typically, part of that business’s revenue and other resources will be directed toward causes that align with the values of the business.
This notion is touched on in the work of Umair Haque who coined the term "thick value". Haque refers to the value created as authentic and sustainable, not value based on someone else’s loss. The ‘thick’ element is the depth and/or height of the value created for society, rather than for personal consumption.
Emerging philanthropists simultaneously generate personal wealth and greater social value, and they are unlikely to use the term philanthropist. Their money flows to social causes at the outset of their wealth generation and throughout their lives. After that, more traditional forms of philanthropy may be taken up.
Diversity worth celebrating
These four models of philanthropy exist simultaneously in our social landscape and there is much to admire in each one.
Over time we may need to coin a new term to replace ‘philanthropist’ that includes all of its forms, and reflects how diverse our society has grown.