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June 27, 2011 / Christian Clansky

What is Philanthropy?

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

What is philanthropy?

The easy answer is that philanthropy is the awarding of grants to worthy individuals or causes. That answer is clear, concise and incomplete. It captures the facts, but not the soul of philanthropy. The best definition I’ve ever seen is from Paul Ylvisaker, a legendary program officer with the Ford Foundation. He said “philanthropy is America’s passing gear.” Philanthropy is just that. It is the spark that leads to change on a level that is often transformational for society. Consider a few noteworthy examples:

A white line on the right side of the road was an idea from the Dorr Family Foundation. In 1953, John Dorr received permission to fund the addition of outer lines on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. His wife had mentioned that at night the headlights of oncoming traffic caused her to drift toward the shoulder. Today, we take for granted a simple line that defines a space and has probably saved thousands of lives. Dorr was the spark.1

Sesame Street was born in the late 1960s through a collaboration between Joan Ganz Cooney, an award winning documentary film producer, government, and philanthropy. Carnegie started with a $1 million investment, then the Ford Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the U.S. Office of Education joined. Today television, when used properly, is widely accepted as a viable component for the education of young children. The Carnegie Corporation was the spark. 2

Hospitals in rural areas were severely lacking in the 1920s. In fact, more than one-half of the counties in the US didn’t have one. The Commonweal Fund recognized the problem and began to establish rural hospitals. Ahead of their time, they required the hospitals to serve any person, regardless of “race, color, creed or economic status.” That program led to the 1946 passage of the Hill-Burton Act for hospital construction. The Commonweal Fund was the spark.3

911, the professions of nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant, multiple think tanks and over 2800 public libraries built in the late 1800s and early 1900s had their genesis – their spark – from philanthropy.

This month as the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers joins others across the country in celebrating the 100th anniversary of institutional philanthropy, it is important to remember that philanthropy can’t do it alone. While philanthropy might be that spark that engages the passing gear, it takes others to keep the engine roaring. Only when government, business, nonprofits and philanthropy join forces do we experience the social change that benefits us all.


WRAG is a member of 8 Neighbors, a regional collaborative composed of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Nonprofit Roundtable, the United Way of Greater Washington, the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, Leadership Greater Washington and the Center for Nonprofit Advancement. 8 Neighbors is working to make  metropolitan Washington a region in which all have the opportunity to succeed.

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