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Defining Charity

August 4, 2010

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons License through Flickr. The photographer does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in this article.

For more definitions and other helpful resources, see our website here.

The debate over whether to feed a man a fish or teach a man to fish is as old as it is overused. However, in American culture today, this maxim can be utilized to demonstrate how the nature of giving has evolved over the last few decades from charity to strategic philanthropy. Where in the fish proverb can I find the part about corporate financial return? In today’s society the culture of giving is complex to the point that it has even become a way to generate profit.

In light of these new methods of giving, individuals and corporations alike need to understand the terms charity, philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, and strategic philanthropy in order to use them effectively and achieve their respective goals. The next few blog entries will hopefully help in doing just that.


As a term, Charity carries legal implications. The government outlines a series of organizational tax classifications  (28 to be exact) all under the 501(c) title. These codes cover a variety of organizations that are tax-exempt because they are charity-based. For a great explanation of the differences, click here.

Definition: Charity is traditionally defined as an individual or organization giving time, talent, or treasure, to benefit the community or people in need without an expectation of return.


  • Mainly focused on treating societal ills, charity addressed the symptoms of a problem and not the cause, i.e. giving food to the homeless but not addressing homelessness itself (I am not to say that charity isn’t useful or as beneficial as other forms of giving!).
  • Usually charity is thought of on an individual basis, a single person either giving directly or to an organization that does the giving on a person’s behalf.
  • The nature of charity is more transactional, with little emphasis on setting up partnerships between recipients and the giving body.
    • Charitable giving usually implies a short-term basis. You give treasure, time, or talent to be used immediately (although you may repeat this act multiple times throughout the year).


  • You: donating money or time to a theater or homeless shelter, either giving money or some skill that is beneficial to them
  • Knights of Columbus: This organization cites charity as one of its primary objectives. Its members donated over $151 million and 69 million labor hours in 2009 to various charities, churches, and communities.
  • Freemasons: In contemporary society charity has become the organization’s primary goal. Money is collected only from members and only distributed to charities.
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