We have an image of contemporary philanthropists as people who give money to atone for their capitalistic sins-sort of like medieval nobles who left behind chantries to pray for their souls. In a good interview (with “In Character” magazine) on American giving, Adam Meyerson of the Philanthropy Roundtable refutes this notion:

IC: What are your thoughts on that phrase you often hear, “giving back to society”?

AM: I hate it.

IC: Why do you hate it?

AM: It implies that those who have made money have taken from society. In fact, they have already given to society. They are great entrepreneurs. They’ve helped create wealth. They’ve helped to create jobs and opportunity. Bill Gates is doing wonderful work as a philanthropist in healthcare and K-through-12 education. But Bill Gates doesn’t have to give back. He has already given, by creating an operating system that brings the benefits of the information revolution to everybody. His philanthropic work is thus another way to give; it is not “giving back.”

I think there’s an interesting question of why so many entrepreneurs in American history have become great philanthropists. This tradition goes back to Ben Franklin, as well as to Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Great business entrepreneurs, of course, have the resources to be great philanthropists. They also have the vision. They have the passion to create institutions. And they have the leadership ability and the commitment to serving others. In a market economy, the only way to make money is by serving others. The great entrepreneurs have been very successful in service through business, and therefore it is natural that they would explore service in some other form, which includes philanthropic leadership.