Philanthropy vs charity: which process of giving is better?


Olga Shershen


The long-term and strategic approach to philanthropy is considered modern and effective nowadays. Sustainability, stable delivery of relevant social impact is a high priority to nonprofit leaders. In contrast, charity or direct help is regarded as obsolete. It is believed that philanthropy will move from a reactive approach to a more strategic charitable giving.

What is the difference between the two ways? Charity is ‘here and now’ help, like the first aid kit. For example, raising money for treatment or rehabilitation for a person. Philanthropy or systemic change is aimed to root out the issue and solve social problems at their core. It is believed that the future lies within projects that can help hundreds and thousands of those in need.

At first glance, these two approaches to philanthropy are different. No one will argue with the fact that helping a large number of people at once is very important. However, as I work for a foundation providing direct help to limbless people in acquiring prostheses, I would like to make several arguments in favour of meeting people’s urgent needs. In my opinion, it is not worth separating systemic and direct help, and here’s why:

  1. Huge increase in demand for services. Due to Covid non-profit sector suffers a shortfall in income. Many large projects are forced to slow down. At the same time, the number of people who cannot wait for a change in the situation at the state level is increasing. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and those who struggled to cope found themselves in an even more difficult situation. They need help today and may simply not live to see systemic changes. For example, this year we had a patient Anton, the champion of Ukraine in athletics and the Paralympic Games. He could not get a replacement for the prosthesis, which had been in use for 10 years.
  2. Finding an effective solution to a global problem is difficult without analyzing private queries. There must be a person behind any system. Working with real stories helps to understand the specifics of a particular situation, the origins of the problem, and the difficulties people face. Our Foundation team is constantly confronting the fact that government programs and health insurance cover only the most basic needs, which, for example, do not include sports. While it is extremely important for amputees to live an active lifestyle and use the most comfortable prostheses. Otherwise, complications are possible. For example, a patient named Eliza from Romania was wearing an unsuitable prosthesis, she has problems with an injured limb and needs surgery again. Today we are working on a case of a patient from Poland, who is only 4 years old and does not receive state assistance. There is a system for helping people with disabilities, but it does not work properly even in developed countries.
  3. There is no point in separating direct help from systemic aid. Some foundations work in two directions, solving the core of a problem and helping people with urgent needs. Changing the system can take years, and people continue to get sick and die. Permanent solutions to social problems can only come from strategic philanthropy, but the importance of immediate need-based giving during hard times can’t be dismissed.
  4. The issues of systemic assistance should be resolved at the state level. Charitable foundations should not take over the functions of the government. The non-profit sector quickly responds to critical situations when it is necessary to support patients or people in difficult life situations. However, the basic needs guaranteed by law should be addressed with the state, but not charitable funds.

Worth noting, that private stories generate more emotional responses. This point can hardly be considered an advantage, but emotions play a significant part in the motivation for charity. We want to see the results of our contribution: how a child who was born without legs runs for the first time in her life, or how a person was able to find a job thanks to new prostheses. This does not invalidate systemic philanthropy, but every personal story is important as well.

Charity and philanthropy solve one problem – help those in need and make the world a better place. The pandemic affects society, exacerbating the social and humanitarian situation. Global problems need systemic assistance, strategic thinking and planning. At the same time, targeting should be at the heart of any system; we do not solve abstract problems but help real people.

Olga Shershen is a Member of the Board of the Red Line Foundation.

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