Walters Family Foundation

Charity or Philanthropy?

Charitable activity and philanthropic activity are related because both seek to help a real world problem. Charity helps a problem on the micro level and philanthropy helps on a macro level.


Philanthropy is sometimes mischaracterized as simply large-scale charitable donations by particularly well-endowed givers who are in turn deemed philanthropists. Although philanthropic pursuits typically require significant resources, the defining characteristic of philanthropy is actually the approach to the causes being supported rather than thresholds of donations. The goal of philanthropy is to pursue donation activities which identify and eradicate the source of a real world problem. By eradicating the source of an important problem, the downstream effects won’t be present in the world in the future. A philanthropic strategy can take significant amounts of time in order to be effective — problems typically arise slowly over time, and the solutions can require time to identify and implement.


It’s not necessarily inaccurate to suggest that all acts of good works, donations, giving, volunteering, and other activities which seek to serve the public interest are acts of charity. When pursuing solutions to important problems in the world, the specific role of charity is to aid the immediate needs, suffering, or misfortune created by any particular issue at hand. While philanthropic efforts take time to eliminate the upstream source of any given problem, the downstream effects are still present in society, and charity works to treat these downstream effects while philanthropy works to destroy the upstream source of the problem.

Treating Downstream Effects and Eradicating Upstream Sources

There are many case studies and examples that could be used to illustrate the dynamics of charity and philanthropy. A universal example could be a scenario in which there is a disease with no known cure. Perhaps there is some moderate medical treatment that can lessen the effects of the disease. In this case, a charity might work to administer medical care directly to individuals suffering from this disease. From a humanitarian perspective, individuals can’t just be left to experience the effects of this disease with no treatment or medical care, so treatment on a micro individual level is necessary in order to serve the immediate common good. It’s ultimately in the best long term public interest to identify a cure for this disease. It’s a noble effort for a charitable organization to treat the disease as it exists today, and people who donate directly to this cause are certainly helping the situation by easing human ailing, but it’s in humanity’s best long term interest if this disease can be eradicated so that treating the disease is not necessary in the future. Therefore, charity works to reduce the negative impact of a problem on the world while philanthropy works to eradicate the source of the problem completely.