Every week, I receive a handful of solicitations in my mailbox from organizations seeking a donation. They send me pre-printed address labels, greeting cards, calendars, and other assorted goodies in an effort to guilt me into sending them some money. And several times a month, I get phone calls from other organizations asking for a little financial help for some program or another. Like many people, I have some favorite charities that I donate to throughout the year and the others I toss into the trash or politely decline to send money. I trust that those I do send money to make use of my donation as they promise to, but I will never know most of the people who my dollars help. It seems that the more I give the more these groups ask, yet I give anyway, because to me it feels good to be able to help someone else without expecting something in return. And I also give because I can afford to spare a few bucks a year to help someone else. So despite the labels and cards and such, even despite the possibility of getting a tax deduction for my donation, for me, this kind of giving is a philanthropic act.

Philanthropy is just a fancy word for giving without expecting something in return. Americans in general are a generous people. When natural disasters strike, we pull out our checkbooks to help our neighbors or strangers half way around the world. We donate hard goods by the truckload, devote our time to help others, and give blood so others can live. We give to our favorite charities to save the forests or feed shelter pets or fight cancer or give vaccinations. Most of the time we seek nothing in return, except maybe an occasional “thank you,” because the good feelings that charity generates are often reward enough.

Businesses and governments engage in philanthropy for entirely different reasons. Since they are not people they can’t feel, and thus get no actual fulfillment from their philanthropic efforts. Most often, donations of cash or goods from businesses to schools or hospitals (among others) are done for financial reasons, either to increase “charitable” tax deductions or to unload excess stock that can be written off the tax forms as well. The more they give the less they owe. But businesses get a fringe benefit when they engage in donations by way of consumer gratitude that may translate into consumer purchases, giving the donating company an increased profit margin on top of the lower tax liability. Clearly, although their donations are helping others, their motives aren’t as pure as those of private individuals who give because they care about people.

The role of philanthropy in government is one of diplomatic bargaining, and thus it becomes a stretch to call it philanthropy at all. Every “gift” a government offers comes with strings attached, in the form of strategic concessions or financial openings or secret deals. The bureaucracies designed to oversee the dispensing of this aid are bloated with waste and graft so that by the time the actual aid has made it to the people it was meant to help, only a fraction of the original amount remains. Some estimates put the figure at 40 cents of each dollar. Further government restrictions on aid (often ideological in nature) even keep approved aid resources away from the people who need help because of ego battles between government officials. It would seem then that government giving is the least altruistic of all the types of philanthropy.

Boiled down into simple terms, you might say that people give to help others, corporations give to increase profits, and governments give for political gain. Still, they are all giving, and to the extent that their gifts reach the intended recipients, they are all helping people who need it. As the richest country in the world today, the United States government, American companies, and individual American citizens could be considered the most philanthropic society in history, each sector giving hundreds of billions of dollars to charities and aid programs each year. But even though this outpouring of generosity is the key ingredient to philanthropic works, equally important is the level of gratitude from those who are receiving the help, and this often depends on the motives of the giver.

It would seem that our spirit of giving would bring us many friends and allies in the world, but too often that doesn’t seem to be the result of our efforts. American charity is tainted by the profit motives of companies who exploit the labor forces of poor countries under the guise of economic assistance. And our governmental aid policies are designed not so much to help actual people but to use as a carrot and stick approach to international dealings with other governments. To the people who need the assistance, these political games are often the difference between life and death, and with each unfulfilled promise of help because of minor ideological differences, their attitudes become ever more jaded. American generosity becomes not a welcome gift from friends, but a gift only the very desperate or very wary will accept. But private organizations funded with private donations from average Americans still enjoy some semblance of thanks, perhaps because they go more directly to the people with their help and not through the mazes of bureaucracy.

It has always been human nature to be envious of those who have a great deal more that you do. This is the position Americans find themselves in today. Billions envy our freedoms to speak and worship. They envy our material wealth. They envy our health and our homes and our opportunities. And even though we give out the most money in real dollars, the United States ranks near the end of the “wealthier” nations in percentage of gross national product that is given in aid. So not only is much of our aid given with strings attached, and our political desires pressed with vigor, we’re seen as miserly too.

Philanthropy is defined as the effort to increase the well being of humanity and promote human welfare by charitable aid or donations. But it does nothing to increase the welfare of humanity if it can’t also increase the compatibility of cultures. Giving aid to another should tighten the bonds between people, not drive them farther apart. After all, what good does it do to help save or improve the life of another if they only grow up despising you and wanting you dead? Our governments must work harder at getting food and medical aid to the people who need it by eliminating much of the red tape and egocentric negotiations. It’s time to stop looking the other way at regimes that take our aid dollars and keep it for themselves. It’s time to stop trying to convert cultures to our own in exchange for infrastructure investments or educational assistance. It’s time for businesses to extend the same working conditions we expect here to their foreign workforces, as well as increasing their own “no strings attached” monetary contributions.

Giving shouldn’t be about political gain or strategic advantage or increased brand loyalty. It shouldn’t be about personal recognition or individual profit. Giving should come from the heart, expecting nothing more than an honestly felt thank you and hoping for a chance to expand peace, freedom, and prosperity.