When the Giving Compass team learned that the term “charity” has been searched on Google six times more than “philanthropy” since 2004, it initiated a dialogue about semantics and donor journeys.

Although Giving Compass guides donors toward high-impact philanthropy practices, we recognize there are many different ways to do good. The conversation that occurred in our little microcosm got us thinking: How do others define charity and philanthropy and what does it mean to each of us?

Charity vs. Philanthropy: Definitions

Charity and philanthropy are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are noticeable differences.

Charity is a natural, emotional impulse to an immediate situation and giving usually occurs in the short-term. Charity can take the form of monetary donations or volunteering.

Philanthropy addresses the root cause of social issues and requires a more strategic, long-term approach. In addition to giving money or volunteering, some philanthropists participate in advocacy work.

Disaster relief is an example of where charity and philanthropy both play a role. When we see a tragedy in the news or via social media, many of us are inclined to provide aid for basic necessities during an emergency. For example, Google searches for “charity” and correlated keywords reached an all-time high during the period surrounding Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami came in second for charity searches). In both cases, the number of searches increased roughly five-fold during peak times.

On the other hand, philanthropy looks at the full disaster relief life cycle, from prevention, to preparedness to recovery. Donors may focus on certain populations, such as the elderly or the poor, as part of their strategy or work directly with stakeholders to improve systems.

Regardless of the issue area, the two terms -- and practices -- share one main thing in common: They’re all about spreading the love.

The original meaning of charity -- “Christian love of one’s fellow,” is rooted in Late Old English while philanthropy, or “the love of humanity,” originated in Greek. When “charity” entered the English lexicon by way of Old French’s “charite,” the meaning evolved to what we are familiar with today: Giving help or money to those in need. Meanwhile, the practice of modern philanthropy is often credited to titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

Dictionaries and history books are a great start, but what better way to understand modern-day charity and philanthropy than with a data dive into Google Trends. Here’s what we learned:

  • Charity has a strong correlation with donations, charitable giving, giving, children, charity ratings, and charity organizations.
  • Philanthropy correlates with searches related to managing, creating, knowledge, research, and organization.
  • While charity is a popular search term nationwide, the term philanthropy is most popular in Washington, D.C., followed distantly by northeast strongholds New York and Massachusetts -- perhaps because many philanthropic organizations are headquartered in these areas.
From Charity to Philanthropy (or Somewhere in Between)

Those who are charitable give always, even when they have little, but when they have more and seek to up their game they start to connect with philanthropy.

There’s also a place for both, whether you consider yourself a philanthropist or not. Each of us has a choice of where we want to make the most impact, including the ratio of charity and philanthropy we want to engage in.

How do you view charity and philanthropy? What form of giving is more empowering? For whom?

Google Trends and Google Correlate data was accessed on Dec. 19, 2018 and March 31, 2020.