Varieties of Giving

Not all giving is the same. Not every gift means the same things, takes the same form, or has the same motivation. An anonymous cash gift to a homeless shelter, for example, is different from a gift of stock to an elite university in exchange for the university’s business school being named after the donor; and both of those are different from a gift to a family member at Christmas. There are varieties of giving. And the differences between those varieties matter.

Here, for example, are three different – and major – forms of giving.

Patronage was the dominant form of giving in ancient Greece and Rome, based in an ongoing relationship of reciprocal exchange between two parties – sometimes people, sometimes communities – of unequal power. The more powerful person (the patron) would give things like protection, housing, land, loans, political appointments, and even cash handouts to the less powerful person (the client). The client would respond in kind by providing his patron with visits, votes, gratitude, and loyalty. At the core of this relationship lay three simple aspects of the broader social imaginary: an acceptance of social and economic hierarchy, an ethic of reciprocal exchange, and an obsession with the worthiness of the recipients of gifts. While no longer a major form of giving, patronage continues as a force in some parts of the nonprofit sector.

Charity was the dominant form of giving in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. This is what we think of when we think of giving to a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or even a person on the street. In many ways, charity takes an approach that is opposed to patronage: it’s rooted in divine command, directed specifically towards the poor, and unconcerned with the ‘worthiness’ of the recipient. In fact, charity is much more concerned about the worthiness of the donor: it is a way for the donor to fix herself by helping others.

Philanthropy is often imagined as a classical form of giving – the word itself has Greek roots – but it’s a relatively recent development and the dominant form of giving in the modern world. It’s the kind of giving that we see in towering figures like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and, more recently, billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It’s also the kind of giving that many of us who are not billionaires participate in when we give to foundations and large nonprofit organizations. Bearing certain similarities to patronage, it’s based in the concentration of wealth, the institutionalization of giving, and the idea of reforming society.

Why does this matter? Because how we give reflects how we think about wealth, poverty, justice, compassion, and event the structure of the cosmic order. It reflects how we think about organizing life. The person who gives out of a sense of a divine preferential option for the poor is doing something very different from the person who gives out of the hope of public recognition and honor. They are shaping the world very differently.

And that has real consequences for both the people giving and the people receiving.