Andrew Pitt: How has social evolution changed philanthropy?

26 Mar 2019 Expert insight

Andrew Pitt, head of charities at Rathbone Investment Management examines how philanthropy has developed over time.

Philanthropy entered the English language in 1600 but its origins date back to ancient civilisation. Back then, religion and religious communities drove a lot of philanthropy and giving was dominated by devout beliefs and traditions. Times have changed, community dynamics have evolved and individualism has entered the scene. But, what does that mean for philanthropy? How has the giving landscape changed with social evolution? And how will the younger generations change the giving landscape of the future?

The role of religion

Back in 2500 BC, Ancient Hebrews used a mandatory tax to benefit the poor. Fast-forward to 28 BC and the first Roman emperor, Augustus, gave public aid to roughly 200,000 people. Records from this time are fairly patchy, but it’s clear that philanthropy did exist in some shape or form.

Back then, communities were shaped around religion and its role was central to human compassion, benevolence and charity. These qualities are present in every religion although emphasis changes. So, giving existed, and it was facilitated within and by religion-based communities. Various studies have shown a positive correlation between religion and pro-social behaviours - religious individuals donate more, not only to religious charities but to all charities

Times have changed. Religion is no longer the only force at the centre of communities and the idea of communities themselves has changed - individualism is here. Yet, as individualism has soared, so has philanthropy. Why?

The rise of individualism

A 2017 study looked at 78 countries and found that people increasingly value friends more relative to family, want their children to be independent, and value free expression. These values are all closely linked to individualism, which has increased by 12 per cent worldwide since 1960. This rise can largely be put down to improving socio-economic development - higher incomes and better education.

But, individualism is usually associated with selfishness and self-centeredness. That means a rise in individualism should mean a fall in charity; not so. An increase in individualism has coincided with a rise in altruism. According to a CAF survey, the nations that provide the most help to strangers include the world’s five most individualistic countries: the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

This must in part be due to increased wealth. But there is also a link between individualism and generosity for strangers. Collectivist cultures value giving, but primarily towards family members and other close-knit groups. For collectivists, it is unlikely that a stranger will ever be anything more than a stranger, but that isn’t true of individualists who tend to be more altruistic towards people they don’t know: great news for the giving landscape. But will the next generation keep up the good work?


Gen Z grew up during the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent recession. They must have been acutely aware of economic challenge as children, and are focused on saving money today. Surely, this means that they will be reluctant to give as much away? Not so.

A new term has been coined for this generation: philanthroteens. 76 per cent are worried about the planet, 30 per cent have already donated to an organisation and just over one in 10 want to start a charity. This hyper-awareness of economic uncertainty has actually instilled in this generation a desire to make the world a better place.

The future of philanthropy

Philanthropy isn’t going anywhere. Methods and motivations may evolve, but no matter the type of society, giving has always happened and that looks set to stay. The philanthroteens of tomorrow will continue the good work started by the Ancient Hebrews; society evolves and gradually improves.

Andrew Pitt is head of charities at Rathbone Investment Management

This content has been supplied by a commercial partner.


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