The invisible professions of philanthropy

Par Jean-Marc Fontan , Co-director PhiLab
30 January 2019

After the development of institutional philanthropy at the end of the 19th century, different professions were called upon in the creation of this domain of action. In general, professional education and disciplinary fields accompany the emergence of new jobs or professions. This was the case for example, for social work[1]with the training of social workers and the implementation of university programs, professional associations and journals. This wasn’t the case for philanthropy, where few specialized training programs were put in place. The few existing programs are mainly directed at the general sector of community action or target very specific professional training, such as fundraising.

This causes an evident lack of training within the sector. We could even go as far as speaking of a situation that resembles a cognitive desert regarding education and training in philanthropic culture: as much in the abstract and theoretical as in the applied and empirical dimensions. This deficiency has an impact, on the one hand, on the way philanthropic knowledge is developed and transmitted, and, on the other hand, on the identity of philanthropic workers.

Concerning the first point, the development and transmission of knowledge mainly occur within the domains of work or intervention where philanthropic practices and actions are deployed. Concretely, it consists of workplace training where skills are developed in practice and through reflexivity narrowly associated with problem-solving. External expertise is heavily relied upon, which produces a transfer of knowledge that is not always well adapted to the reality of the receiving end. In this way, notaries, lawyers, financial placement brokers, planners and strategic or evaluation counsellors are called upon to accompany philanthropic action professionals.

Concerning the second point, the identity of workers in the philanthropic field is not united. We could go as far as saying that this identity is stratified and a portion is even rendered invisible.

From a first angle, the philanthropic professional, when presenting themselves, will more easily endorse the title of the profession pursued (communication agent, fundraising professional, human resource manager, accountant …) rather than use the term “philanthropic worker”. The philanthropic vocation is not only rendered invisible, but it also becomes a second quality title that comes after the professional function.

From a second angle, when an external resource is contracted by a philanthropic organization, an accounting firm, for example, they will highlight, in their company portfolio, the fact that a significant portion of their clients is charitable organizations. They could then add a social dimension to their accounting expertise. The fact that they offer very specialized services for the philanthropic sector will not be mentioned, omitting the existence of their refined skills in the sector. Once again, there is an invisibilization process.

From a third angle, only a small number of organizations with a philanthropic vocation are officially recognized as such. How come? Simply because the official “charitable organization” status is given by the Canada Revenue Agency. Only organizations with charitable status (federal label) are at the heart of the recognition offered by the public legislator. All other organizations, having the ‘nonprofit’ corporation status, for example, are not eligible to full recognition. In the end, any informal organization doing charitable work or any private company acting for charitable purposes will not be recognized as such. In consequence, the professionals at work within these organizations will not define themselves as philanthropic workers. Once again, we observe a double invisibilization: (1) of a very significant number of organizations and (2) of those who work or volunteer within them.

This invisibility is even more pronounced for fundraising professionals. In no case are these people perceived as philanthropists. The fact that they are collecting and not giving, that they are paid and that they intervene before the action is taken makes it difficult to associate them to the philanthropic process.

In reality, the term “philanthropist” can be used to identify anyone who donates their time, and more often than not their money; and even more generally, a substantial sum of it and on a regular basis. The donation of a dollar to a homeless person every now and then does not make you a philanthropist.

French Dictionary


Personne qui a pour but d’améliorer la vie de ses semblables… Exemple : Ce milliardaire philanthrope a fondé une association d’aide aux sans-abris. Il fait régulièrement des dons à des banques alimentaires.[2]

If the first part of the definition is very universal and can be applied to every small gesture that allows improving someone else’s situation; the second part qualifies the true status of the gesture: it is monetary, substantial; it is aimed at an intermediate donor organization who intervenes within a collective of people with a different status than that of the donor. There is no common ground between the billionaire and the homeless person other than the status of common humanity.

Let us come back to fundraising professionals. They will not be identified as “philanthropists”, but more as people offering a service seen as a ‘technical’ fundraising operation to an organization with a social vocation. On the one hand, it will not be taken into consideration that this professional expertise could imply or demonstrate a donation of self, in a certain activist form. On the other hand, the particular status of fundraising under the angle of its “philanthropic” dimension will not be recognized. It is more often the skills of this person that are recognized and sought out. Will they be able to mobilize the funds required for the survival of the organization? If it is a question of survival, there is an added value of philanthropic nature…

We draw attention to this fact given the particular skills, expertise and knowledge required to work in this field. Fundraising is also being part of the transmission of philanthropic culture, of a vision of society and a social finality. Fundraising is carrying out mediation between the “intentionality” of mutual aid and the “finality” of allowing for the intended social intervention to take place. It is also guaranteeing that this mediation between the donor and the ultimate beneficiary of the donation is efficient. It is thus ensuring the donor that the capital being transferred will be used for the ends it is being mobilized for. It is also making the donor aware of the array of possibilities (needs, issues, emergencies, aspirations, pooling strategies…) surrounding the management of the given capital. In other words, this mediation represents more than the transfer of funds from point A to point B. The transaction falls within philanthropic dissemination and not only financial process of the action undertaken by rendering it as in line as possible with the needs and social issues present in a community. Through the donation, not only is a transfer of capital being made, but also an awareness that the situation in need of improvement is unacceptable, that it is not fatal and that it is possible to remedy it. Through the donation is also expressed an involvement that seeks to be expressed through other channels: social, towards others, politically through its implication and the vigilance expressed to governments…

In conclusion, the question of the philanthropic finality to be exercised by and within professional expertise or by an organization with a social vocation asks to be better recognized. To do so, the development of philanthropic culture in the academic or professional education sectors or continuing education or greater public communication mechanisms, through the media, are unavoidable. Fully recognizing philanthropy’s sense falls within a certain re-enchantment with our rapport with living together. A re-enchantment that is crucial in reviewing the central importance to place on mutual aid and donations in a context where we must find the right channels to facilitate the upcoming social and ecological transitions. It is important to reconnect with the wholesome and ingrained dimensions of mutual aid and the donation to fully exercise the ethical and transformative aim of philanthropic discourses and practices.

Translation by Katherine Mac Donald

For further information

François Brouard et Sophie Larivet (2010). « Profession : philanthrope », The Philanthropist, Volume 23, No. 2, p. 166-175.

David A. Campbell (2014). « Practicing Philanthropy in American Higher Education: Cultivating Engaged Citizens and Nonprofit Sector Professionals », Journal of Public Affairs Education, Volume 20, No. 2, p. 217-231.

Heather L. Carpenter (2016). « Preferences for a Professional Doctorate in Philanthropy Program », Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership, Volume 6, No. 3, p. 224-242.

Sylvain Lefèvre (2007). « Le sale boulot et les bonnes causes. Institutionnalisation et légitimation du marketing direct au sein des ONG », Politix, vol. nº 79, no. 3, p. 149-172.

Notes de bas de page

[1]For a summary of the history of social work and its institutionalization process, see:

[2]Person whose goal is to improve the lives of their fellow Man… Example: This billionaire philanthropist funded an association to help the homeless. He makes regular donations to food banks. (Our translation)