A philanthropist is a person who engages in activities which are designed to benefit people and society. These activities can range from donating to a college endowment which is used to provide scholarships to establishing a charitable organization which conducts research on diseases and searches for new treatment and prevention techniques. While philanthropy is often associated with people who are wealthy, because they have more resources to donate to philanthropy, people in a wide range of social and economic classes can engage in philanthropy, and several religions actually specifically mandate that their followers regularly engage in charity.
The term “philanthropist” literally means “lover of man,” and as it implies, philanthropists are generally altruistic in nature, rather than engaging in activities which will directly benefit them in addition to contributing to other people. Philanthropists are often rewarded for their actions with tax breaks, an increase in social status, and other benefits, but most claim altruism as a motivation, and some prefer to remain anonymous so that the focus is on the benefits being provided, rather than the person contributing them.
Philanthropists can donate money, time, skills, and material goods to causes they support. They often fill a gap, providing benefits where none are available, or sensing an area of weakness and supporting it. For example, a philanthropist in an urban area might note that city services to the homeless fall short of the need, and he or she might decide to open a services center for the homeless to create more of a safety net, and to avoid the entanglements which are often associated with government organizations.
Many branches of the arts rely heavily on charitable contributions to continue, with ballets, museums, and other centers of the arts being funded by contributions from philanthropists and charitable organizations which pool the resources of many donors. A philanthropist may opt to contribute to such organizations rather than giving to causes directly, under the assumption that the board members of the organization may be better equipped to best determine how, where, and when the funds should be used.
Psychologists have noted in several studies that altruistic acts appear to generate feelings of satisfaction and reward in the brain, suggesting that humans are actually hardwired to engage in charitable activities and to help each other in times of need. This may be one reason why a person becomes a philanthropist, although wealthy individuals also experience tremendous social pressure to engage in charitable activities, and they may be censured for failing to contribute to various charitable causes.