Philanthropy as a Force of Social Change

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Action
Social change
Social good
Philanthropy may take the form of a social movement, or an attempt to organize the interests of a group for a social change. This may include civil rights, labor, women’s equality, the environment, consumer rights, and LGBT rights. Philanthropy may provide funds or advocacy for reform that support social change. Nonprofits many times are the best, and the first line of defense against many emerging social problems.

by Afsoon Mohseni and Brenna Albritton


Payton & Moody describe that “philanthropy exists because of two truths about the human condition: things often go wrong, and things could always be better.” Doing something about this inevitable suffering, acting for social change, is philanthropic action itself – “the exercise of the moral imagination” (Payton 20008). Social change in a philanthropic context is broadly defined as the action taken by nonprofit organizations to improve the social situation of individuals within the wider community (Shier 2015). Social change takes place continuously as individuals, groups, institutions, and societies receive and respond to the world in which they live (Kotler 1971). The term can also be understood through a model named AEA (awareness, empowerment, action), saying that it includes three stages of 1) Awareness; dealing with understanding the nature of societal structure and function, interdependence of individual and societal problems and needs, 2) Empowerment; gaining knowledge, skills, and ability to act as a prerequisite to get involved in societal affairs; and 3) Action; becoming active rather than a passive observer for taking action in achieving a goal (Zomorrodian 2016). Social change can be practiced in individual or collective forms (as catalysts) by disadvantaged group members to improve their position by for example engaging in demonstration, signing petition or other forms of collectively motivated actions against the status quo (Stroebe, 2015) to reflect greater social quality (De Lemus 2015). A general familiar example of social change is female empowerment in developing countries (Hansen, 2015).

Philanthropy can also be defined as a collective form of charitable giving to change and improve the quality of life, or voluntary action for the public good. All these conceptions of philanthropy encompass voluntary giving, voluntary service, voluntary association, and a moral action in response to the “human problematic” (Payton 2008). However, as a concept and in practice, it has different definitions; it can be defined as the practice of individuals reflecting a “love of humanity”, but also the voluntary dedication of personal wealth and skills for the benefit of specific public causes and bring about specific changes. The term also refers to the private efforts to solve common social problems such as poverty or ignorance (Anheier 2014).


Historic Roots

Philanthropy is an ancient tradition (Payton 2008), with historical roots of philanthropy as social change in American society going back to the different social movements carried out in support of underserved populations in the uniquely diverse society of America through philanthropic and voluntary actions. In early America, around 1700s, philanthropy was found within public discourse, in gift exchanges, religious experiences, reformist climates, and in other not entirely institution-bound forms (Friedman, 2003). Two points are here notable; charitable impulses dominated life in small communities in early colonial America (Friedman, 2003), and that the unique diversity in the early American society gave rise to the field of philanthropy.

Early social changes were manifested in the form of social movements (a collectively acting with some continuity to promote or resist a change in the society or organization of which it is part). One of the most powerful movements in U.S history is abolitionism - the struggle to end slavery - which happened during the nineteenth- century reform movements and brought blacks and whites into an integrated socio-political movement for the first time in U.S history. Later, the civil rights movement- the struggle for the universal application of legal and social rights to all persons in the United States regardless of their religion, social background, race, color, gender, heritage, and other factors- was a milestone in American history. The movement began during the 1950s and continued as a major political force through the late 1970s. The civil rights movement can be named as the first American social movement, which was organized, managed, and often funded by formal nonprofit organizations (Burlingame 2004).


The role of philanthropy for social good is as an essential tool in our collective attempts to solve problems, and is a force for social change (Burlingame 2004). It is important because it is a mode of action that shapes our individual lives and the world around us in broad ways (Payton 2008). Philanthropy, many times, has been the driving force that has provided the desired changes in different movements throughout history.

It is noteworthy that the efforts of citizens to influence the policies of government and other institutions in society are central to democracy. Asserting that philanthropy is a force for social change, means that philanthropic resources should be used to support social change work such as movements. The lack of resources damages the concept of active citizenship and contributes to a society where only people with resources can act effectively and actively (Burlingame 2004).

Citizen partnership outside of government occurs most often through nonprofit organizations, and funding for this partnership originates from some kind of philanthropy (individual or organizational).

One way in which the sector and philanthropic action engages in social change is through social change funds, which have increased in the recent years within the sector and grown considerably in the United States since the 1970s.These funds have supported organizations lacking the philanthropic resources, groups advocating for social change and empowering marginalized people through poverty and/ or discrimination


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

A social movement is “a collective attempt to organize or represent the interests of a previously unorganized or politically excluded group” (Burlingame 2004). Examples of social movements may include those for civil rights, labor, women’s equality, the environment consumer rights, gay and lesbian rights, and so on. Philanthropy is capable of providing funds that support social changes through advocacy or organizing for that, specially changes toward the equitable distribution of political and economic resources.

Social movements are fulfilled through two main activities of advocacy and organizing, both of which come through philanthropy. Advocacy is defined as any attempt by people to influence public policy on behalf of a collective interest. Advocacy is decisions affecting the lives of large numbers of people in two main types of political (influencing governmental policy) and social (influencing policy in nongovernmental institutions) ones. Examples of social advocacy are various kinds of nonprofit organizations like schools and universities, hospitals, social welfare agencies, community groups, and religious organization (Burlingame 2004).

Philanthropy and nonprofit organizations have provided social change funds particularly for those groups advocating for social change and seeking to empower people who have been marginalized through poverty and/ or discrimination. Philanthropy is more focused on the public good accomplished through public action shown through an organization’s mission and shared values; and is much less about money and profit (Payton 2008). The philanthropic sector and its foundations are uniquely positioned to shape the public dialogue through innovation, bold activities, and demonstration projects to fulfill desired changes.

Society turns to nonprofits and philanthropy to address pressing issues of the day for many reasons including failures of other sector and the nonprofit sector being the ideal space to address the issue. Philanthropy shows great interest in supporting organizations and activities that contribute to civil society and social capital. However, both of these are considered as indirect routes to change. Philanthropy and the nonprofit sector can also fund advocacy and organizing as a part of democracy and social changes by providing resources and chances for citizens like those of lower socioeconomic status, people of color, disenfranchised and underrepresented groups, and others who have historically lacked the collective political, economic, and social power to be civically engaged in ways that could alter and change their common circumstances (Burlingame 2004).


Key Related Ideas

  • Advocacy: Advocating for reform is one of the five main roles of philanthropy. Although advocacy has a rich history, the basic premise is one group or individual is acting on behalf of another group or individual to help secure service or right. Nonprofit
    organizations active in advocacy may be categorized into six main areas of advocacy: 1) agency, 2) legislative, 3) legal, 4) community, 5) issue, 6) political campaign (Burlingame 2004)

  • Civil Society: the term civil society has become a pivotal theme in contemporary thought about the philanthropic or third sector. The term defines conditions and characteristics that make the strength and expansion of the third sector possible within a sociopolitical context from community to international levels (Burlingame 2004). On the other hand, there is more recent definition of the term as modern civil society that refers to the sum of institutions, organizations, and individuals located between the family, the state, and the market, in which people associate voluntarily to advance common interests (Anheier 2014).

  • Social Capital: Social capital refers to the benefits social actors derive from their membership in social networks, and its source is actually the social structures and social relations of the actor and encompasses norms such as trust and reciprocity (Anheier 2014) in nature. The term is relevant to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, and the social capital created by philanthropy is especially useful in a variety of settings like religion, education, poverty, and health (Burlingame 2004).

  • Voluntarism: Voluntarism is the oldest form of assisting others, and the cornerstone of any philanthropic action. The term refers to the action of an individual who willingly gives unpaid help, in the form of time, services or skills, through an organization or group (Burlingame 2004). Voluntary action has impacts beginning from individual levels up to social movements and to the highest applicable level, the society as whole (Ott, Steven J. and Dicke 2012).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Jane Addams (1860-1935): She, as a writer and social reformer, led the American social settlement movement and became a prominent pacifist. She developed a lifelong career out of voluntary associations. Addams wished to improve the lives of her immigrant neighbors, and while America was being industrialized, she discovered problems. She believed in environmental conditions beyond an individual’s control stopping them from getting out of poverty. Therefore, she published Hull-House Maps and Papers as a study, and fought for various reforms and social changes including industrial safety and child labor legislation, limited working hours for women, and compulsory school attendance (Burlingame 2004).

  • Martin Luther Jr. King (1926-1966): As a philanthropist and Nobel Peace Prize winner believed in nonviolence with his famous speech of “I Have a Dream”, he called for racial integration, and led nonviolence marches in 1966 and 1968. He had pioneered the use of consumer boycotts for economic equality, which is applied by many social activists today. He is now an epitome for people serving for civil rights (Burlingame 2004).

  • Margaret Sanger (1879-1966): She led a successful campaign to establish a nationwide system of clinics where women could obtain reliable birth control services. She provided the grounds for acceptance of birth control through organized medicine, and the affirmation of her belief that there was a fundamental right to practice birth control by the court (Burlingame 2004).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • W.K. Kellogg Foundation presents the identity-based philanthropy (W.K. Kellogg Foundation) that addresses the gap of attention to the communities of color being underserved through empowering them to rely on their own rich traditions of giving, and shows their generosity in a collective, community philanthropy (

  • Sierra Club founded in 1892 by John Muir, relied on membership support for its activities toward the support and protection of the wilderness (

  • The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy promotes philanthropy serving the public good and is responsive to people and communities with the least wealth and opportunity and is held accountable to the highest standard of integrity and openness. The organization envisions a fair, just and democratic society in which the common good is recognized as a high priority (


Reflection Questions

  1. What is your most important value and what changes could happen to improve that value? How do you think philanthropy can help you reaching your value?
  2. What is one thing you’d like to better about the world around you? How do you think philanthropy could help you achieve this?



  • Anheier, Helmut. Nonprofit Organizations Theory, Management, Policy. New York: Routledge, 2014.
  • Burlingame, F. Dwight (ed.). Philanthropy in America: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. California: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  • Hansen, Nina. (2015). ”The development of psychological capacity for action: The empowering effect of a microfinance program on women in Sri Lanka. Journal of Social Issues, 71, 2015: 597–613.
  • Kotler, Philip. “The Elements of Social Action”. The American Behavioral Scientist 1971: 691. In EBSCO [database online]. Available from IUPUI Librariy.
  • Ott, Steven J., Lisa A. Dicke. The Nature of the Nonprofit Sector. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2012.
  • Payton, L Robert, Michael P. Moody. Understanding Philanthropy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Shier, L Michael. Femida Handy. “Social Change Efforts of Direct Service Nonprofits: The Role of Funding and Collaboration in Shaping Social Innovations”. Human Service Organization: Management, Leadership & Governance 39, 2015: 6-24.
  • Stroebe, Katherine, Katie Wang. Stephen C. Wright. “Broadening Perspective on Achieving Social Change”. Journal of social issues 71, No. 3, 2015: 633-645.
  • Zomorrodian, Asghar. “Social Responsibility and Social Change: How to engage in public policy process via social entrepreneurship”. 2016: 583-596. In EBSCO [database online]. Available from IUPUI Library.
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.