Philanthropic Psychology: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

Philanthropic Psychology or “Phil Psych” is a new branch of science focused on growing philanthropy around the world. But to understand what is different about the approach, you have first to start with definitions.

Portrettbilde av Jen Shang og Adrian Sargeant.

Tekst: Jen Shang and Adrian Sargeant.

The root of Philanthropy is from the Greek ‘love of humankind’. Psychology is the study or research of the psyche or the soul.

The study of love

When you put the two words together, you get a discipline that is effectively about how people love humankind.  So philanthropic psychology is about studying how people love others. Well, almost. When we study the love of humankind we study both how we love others, but also how we can better love ourselves, deepening our sense of personal wellbeing.

In the context of fundraising, love is of course expressed through the act of giving. Many psychologists and fundraisers believe that that love is in some sense self-sacrificial and that the more self-sacrificial or selfless the gift, the better it somehow is. There are two issues with this.

The two issues

The first is that “altruism” and self-sacrificial giving is a very 20th century take on philanthropy. Giving is most powerful when the donor extends their sense of who they are around an organization or cause. So, if I see myself as a supporter of Greenpeace and that is core to my sense of self, when I make a donation, I am not giving money away or sacrificing a part of me. Rather I am moving resource around to another part of who I am, and celebrating self, not sacrificing it.

The second problem with this perspective is that we usually don’t adequately consider who the “self” is that is being sacrificed. So even if we view giving as a sacrifice, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to feel good about having made the sacrifice because we’re not precisely sure what has been given up or lost. Philanthropic psychology counterbalances that tendency by supporting fundraisers and donors to articulate their sense of self in the most precise way, so when we then say we self-sacrificially give, that phrase enriches, rather than, diminishes our meaning in life.

An act of kidness

At the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, we believe that giving can and should be a pleasurable, mutually beneficial experience which cultivates and nurtures the human capacity to love. Articulating that love through a gift can create a simple exchange of pleasure. Put simply, I help a beneficiary and I feel good as a consequence of having offered my love. But philanthropic psychology can enrich that experience because it studies different forms of love and how these different types can help us grow meaning in life.

But more on that later. For now, it’s important to extend beyond the terminology to understand what it means in practice. For us, Philanthropic Psychology is a powerful blend of the study of identity, wellbeing, and love.


In brief, the science of identity is the study of who we are. In the fundraising community, research abounds on why people give and what the drivers are that prompt their generosity. Even when identities are studied, they are most often explored as tools to grow giving.

Philanthropic psychology is different. It does not see peoples’ identities as something that we target and then consume. Instead, it sees people’s identities as something that we collect, cherish and nurture. It does not see giving as the consequence of fulfilling identities, it sees giving as the route to living fulfilling identities. 


 Wellbeing has become something of a buzzword in recent years. We all know we need it, we all know we want it, but how do we find it? Philanthropic psychology offers one very particular path: we love our way to it. And this love is built in a very particular way: by getting to know who we truly are and by loving even when it seems impossibly hard.

There are three vital aspects to wellbeing when it comes to philanthropy, and these are connection, competence, and autonomy. Firstly, connection. We need to feel connected to others that we love and care about. When connections between people and others they care about are strengthened, wellbeing increases – and with it, donations can increase. Secondly, when we feel good about our abilities in a certain field, we experience wellbeing. In the context of philanthropy, donors can feel good about their competence in articulating their love for others. Finally, when we feel we have a say in something or a hand in making something good happen, we experience greater levels of wellbeing – so giving donors a voice and agency in the impact they have is crucial.

The final point must not be mistaken with control, because the essence of a sustainable philanthropic relationship is trust. The whole point of trust is not to control what the other one does, or even what the other achieves, but to seed our own control to someone we have learned to trust.


‘Love’ is not a monolith, and the love expressed in different contexts and among different people looks, sounds and feels very different. Understanding the role of love in philanthropic psychology is understanding who nonprofits are and who their supporters are – and crafting the right kind of relationship for the right kind of love to grow.

It is interesting how little we talk about love in our sector. Most of the language we use is about money or gifts or the act of giving. Yet what is at the root of most giving is love – and when we talk about it appropriately, we can double giving and massively build wellbeing.

So what do we mean by “appropriately?” Love, identity, and well-being cannot be applied in isolation. It is only when they are used together that giving can fulfil the wellbeing of our true selves. Philanthropic psychology brings the three together. From the words, images and concepts we use in our fundraising communications, to the team, structure and culture we build our organizations around. It is the underlying science that builds sustainable organizations on the foundations of the most meaningful personal experiences and relationships.

Kommende kurs:

Sammen med Institute for Sustainable Philantropy vil vi tilby et åtteukers digitalt kurs i philanthropic psychology. Kurset har oppstart i mars 2023. Mer informasjon kommer etter sommeren. Har du spørsmål, send en epost til Charlotte på

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