Philanthropos Tropos Defined

Philanthropy. The word itself is Greek – derived from phil meaning to love and anthropos meaning mankind. It is, simply, the love of humanity – the caring for what it means to be human.

The first use of the term is believed to have been in the Greek play Prometheus Bound (approx. 400 BC).[1] In the tragedy, the primitive creatures who are to become human live at first a fearful life, in utter darkness in caves. Zeus, the powerful and at times tyrannical King of the Gods, decides these creatures have no value and sets about to destroy them. Prometheus, however, possessing something referred to as "philanthropos tropos" or a humanity loving character decides to defend the defenseless.

He gives the poor cave dwellers two incredibly powerful gifts: fire (aka knowledge) and blind optimism (hope). The first philanthropic gifts ever described are knowledge and hope—that's powerful stuff.

If I had the powers of Prometheus, I would make it so every person in the world saw themselves as a philanthropist. What if, we all shared knowledge and hope – fire and optimism – with each other.

Lacking mythological powers and being rather linear and Type A, I instead believe that the renaissance of philanthropos tropos must be rooted in a Four Part Plan:

Part 1: Inspire More Giving: Philanthropy starts with giving.  Now, on many measures, we live in an incredibly generous country: According to the World Giving Index 2011, the US currently ranks 1st in the world for charitable giving (as defined by donations, volunteering, and "helping strangers"). Last year, Americans donated more than $300 Billion dollars to nonprofit organization and about 65 million Americans volunteered.

I believe, however, we can and should do more. $300 billion sounds like a lot but it is just 2% of our GDP – about equal to the amount brought in by internet ad sales. Think about that. All the charitable giving in this country amounts to about the same as the revenue generated from all those flashy ads on Facebook and Google.

Imagine if people were truly inspired. Imagine if philanthropos tropos was our shared value. We need it to be not only because there are more than 1 million nonprofit organizations out there solving real problems like homelessness, affordable healthcare, civil rights, and the protection of our earth, but also because our own souls need to give. It is, in the end, what will ensure we hold onto our fire and hope – serving others will make us the humans we can be.

Part 2: Inspire More Asking:  I believe, deep in my soul, that one of the most noble and amazing things you can do in your life is to find a cause you care deeply about and invite others to join you in transforming the world. I believe asking – fundraising – is an incredible privilege.

I believe asking others to give is like being a really good matchmaker – you have the rare opportunity to give another person a chance to express what they value by giving to a cause that will make life better. That moment – when a person realizes they can make a difference – is magic and to be a catalyst of that is nothing short of stunning. Done with joy, respect, and humility, "asking" can be one of the most meaningful and powerful things you will ever do.

Part 3:  Recognize We All Receive:  You can get through this life without ever giving, but no one has survived without receiving. Consider Bill Gates – a man usually thought of on the giving end of the equation. But, he too received. The PTA at his high school decided to raise money to buy a supercomputer at a time when many thought this frivolous and crazy. That computer gave Bill Gates his start. Without that gift (and those fundraising efforts) he might not be who he is today.

We all, if we stop and think, have benefited—we have all received. When you receive—and we all will -- do so gracefully – for this too is part of the equation of philanthropy and caring for humanity.

Part 4: We Each Must Teach:  What if we actually taught our children about philanthropy. We teach about bullying and personal safety, we teach about honesty and responsibility. But, what if the next generation grew up thinking philanthropy was normal – not an extra add-on. That to me is the ultimate manifestation of Prometheus's fire and hope.

Share your philanthropy with a young person – your child, a grandchild, a neighborhood kid. In our family, we split our daughter's allowance three ways – one jar for spending (however she wishes), one jar for saving (for something longer-term) and one for giving (to pick a cause of her choice to support).

What if we took kids with us when we volunteered or as our date to the next fundraiser. What if we explained to kids why we are writing a check and seemingly getting nothing in return. Children learn from what they see. Show them philanthropy.

I truly believe that we can change the world through giving, asking, receiving, and teaching. We can make humanity better and we can make ourselves better. For, with philanthropos tropos comes an incredible realization that what we do matters.

This post was adapted from a speech I gave at the first ever Methow Minds event -- a wonderful evening of TED-like talks to benefit the Community Center in  Twisp.

What do you think we need to do to have a renaissance of philanthropos tropos?

[1] McCully, George. Philanthropy Reconsidered (2008).


  1. Many high schools across the country require some sort of community service requirement for students to graduate. But what if this requirement became something that started much earlier...say in kindergarten?

    5-year-old Phoebe Russell needed to complete a community service project before she could graduate from kindergarten. Uninterested in a lemonade stand, she saw a homeless man begging for food and decided to raise $1,000 for the San Francisco Food Bank. Her teacher tried to lower expectations to something more reasonable, but Phoebe’s heartwarming appeal to leave soda cans and donations at the school snowballed. Before she knew it, Phoebe had raised $3,736.30– the equivalent of 17,800 heated meals.

    Certainly Phoebe learned that what we "do" matters and I suspect it will be something that she will seek to do in the future. Furthermore, Phoebe learned what Paul Tough calls "executive functions"....grit perseverance. optimism being just a few, that he identifies in his book How Children Succeed. Tough suggests that learning these character traits is the mechanism that can narrow the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids.

    If very young children were asked to think of ways they could make a difference in their community or in others lives early on, not only might this have a "renaissance of philanthropies troops but it would also be a way in which the executive function traits grit, social intelligence, optimism, zest, curiosity self control and gratitude could be taught and reinforced!

  2. Excellent point....I have post brewing in my head about my recent visit to my daughter's 4th grade classroom where the magic of philanthropy and the sense of empowerment that goes along with it was alive and well. If it's there then, does it stick? Or do we lose it somewhere along the way? Thanks for posting and starting conversation! This is fun! -- Sarah

  3. What inspired Prometheus to give, and his giving came at a high personal price, was human need. Good causes have a stronger possibility of attracting support if they are focused on that fact. Human needs, really important ones, come in many shapes and sizes, which means that many kinds of giving and asking are both possible and much needed. Organizations that demonstrate effectiveness in meeting human need effectively are likely to enjoy greater success than those who have a noble goal but are vague about they deliver to achieve it.

  4. Thanks for this raise a good point about remembering to always make a human connection, even if the need at first glance feels like it's not about humans. Our human ability to feel beyond our own species or our own individual lives can be a powerful force, if we can figure out how to harness it. Glad you are participating! -- Sarah