Glossary of Terms

I tentatively offer here in the space of this blog some of the definitions that Lana and I have been working on.  Since the blog has so far served as a platform for emerging (and not necessarily fully formed) ideas, it seems an appropriate place to share our work.  But I would like to further emphasize that this list represents only a first attempt toward definition, and that we look forward to much revision and sustained conversation on this subject. (and maybe one day we will remove this post from the blog so that it doesn’t live forever as a first edition….?)


Key aspects:  donating funds for humanitarian purposes

Philanthropy is the distribution or donation of private funds for public and/or humanitarian purposes.  It is traditionally an activity undertaken only by the wealthy and upper class, but in our usage philanthropy includes even the smallest donations, such as those to a microloan to Kiva.  We might more productively use the term “donation” here, but I do not want to neglect the important historical connections between charity and philanthropy, particularly with regard to women and Christianity.  In terms of further theory, Ostrower suggests that philanthropy is connected to the broad American values of “individualism, private initiative, suspicion of governmental power and bureaucracy” (132).


Key aspects:  unpaid donation of time

Volunteering is the activity of donating one’s time, effort and talent to a need or cause without profiting monetarily.  Volunteering largely takes place through non-profit organizations or projects and is undertaken to be of benefit to the community and the volunteer.  In some definitions of volunteering it is important to note that the volunteer is acting of their own free will and without coercion, although there may be incentives in the workplace or the classroom.  Related terms:  community service, service learning.

Charity Work

Key aspects: emergency assistance for the needy

Charitable organizations provide immediate assistance to members of society who are systemically disadvantaged, such as those who are poor, diseased, or homeless.  Such organizations are often seen to provide “emergency relief” for these social problems rather than working toward structural change.  Although charitable organizations are often criticized for failing to address the root cause of a problem (for instance, in providing food for the hungry rather than lobbying for legislation that would end hunger), we want to be clear that we do not value activism over charity.  Both forms of civic engagement serve a purpose, and we are not arguing that all charity should become activist.  Border case:  causumerism

Individuals sometimes resist labeling their work as “charity” because of its connotations as being limited in scope, temporary, or belittling to those they seek to aid.  The harshest critics argue that charitable organizations divert resources from actual social change in the causes of poverty, and that individuals become dependent on charity.


Key aspects:  intentional action toward ending social injustice

Activists take intentional action to change the larger social forces that lead to inequality, injustice, or harm to society.  Their projects can be focused on just one facet of a social problem and may be limited in scope, but their actions are centered around a cause or set of causes and lead to a goal of achieving structural change.  As Bickford and Reynolds state, “activist efforts seek to change the social climate and structures that make volunteerism necessary” (238).  Activist work is argued to be coextensive with the idea of “being political,” since both activism and political actions have the goal of remedying social and economic disparities in society.  Some examples of social causes that activists have organized around:  abortion, AIDS, animal rights, antinuclear, corporate, environmental, gay and lesbian, legal, Native American, race, religious/spiritual, student/youth, women/feminism, and worker activism.  There are activist individuals, groups, organizations, and movements.  Related terms:  social movement.   Border case:  slacktivism, fan activism.

Individuals may resist labeling themselves activists because of the “negative, radical connotations in our culture” (Bickford and Reynolds, 229) or because they do not not “consider advocating for social change necessary, effective, or interesting” (238).

Example:  Breast Cancer

Through a close examination of the case of women who organize around the issue of breast cancer, we can see some of the complexities that surround these terms with regard to self-definition.  We also see  a great example of the fluidity of each category, since a single organization and its many members can encompass every term in one way or another.

Blackstone (1995) studies female volunteers at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation as a way of challenging the boundaries between activist and volunteer work.  The women that Blackstone meets clearly fall into the category of “volunteer”—most frequently, women donate their time and energy toward organizing Race for the Cure events to raise money for cancer research.  The organization also certainly has a relationship to philanthropy, given that it is largely funded by charitable giving.  But it is less clear where the organizations and its volunteers fall with relation to charity and activism.  When we inspect their volunteerism on a closer level, we see that the individual women involved with the Foundation have very different relationships to these terms and concepts.

Many women claim that they volunteer for the purpose of meeting and socializing with like-minded women, rather than for any political or charitable cause.  They speak of their work toward eradicating breast cancer as being “fair” but not “political,” since they believed taking a political stand could be contentious and thus should be avoided.  Yet the organization’s work can be seen as distinctly charitable as well as activist—charitable since they are providing funds for equipment in clinics and treatment for women with cancer, and activist since they are educating and empowering women to advocate for better medical treatment as a response to an “unfriendly health care system” (p. 360).

This test case reminds us that self-definition can be influenced by the connotation and history of each term, but that it still can be possible to pinpoint how we believe each arm of the foundadtion resides within our definitions.

Border cases

There are many slippery cases of participatory culture that still defy neat categorization.  For instance, what about “causumerism,” as in purchasing a RED brand t-shirt from The Gap, or “slactivism,” as in changing your Facebook profile picture to indicate that you support a social movement?  In the case of causumerism’s politicized consumption, it seems that there is a relationship to the work of charities.  Indeed, the purpose of the Product(RED) campaign is to raise money for HIV/AIDS in Africa, so in that sense purchasing a t-shirt for the cause—regardless of whether or not you wear it and then feel connected to a movement—is the same as donating money to a charity.  In the case of the slactivist’s use of microcommunication on Facebook for participating in a social movement, it seems that one is merely gesturing toward a systemic problem that needs to be changed rather than actively working to change it.  Yet this distinction between how large or public an action needs to be is one plagued by vagueness.  If changing one’s Facebook status isn’t effective enough, what about wearing a sandwich board on a busy street?  What about wearing a sandwich board in front of a room full of legislators?  I believe an examination of these and other border cases will challenge us to really interrogate the boundaries and slippages of our terminology.


(a bit modified and streamlined since the last readings post)

Ostrower, Francie. Why the Wealthy Give:  The Culture of Elite Philanthropy. Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1997.

Friedman, Lawrence J. and Mark D. McGarvie. Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

McCutcheon, Robert.  Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History. Transaction Publishers, 1994.

McCarthy, Kathleen D.  Lady Bountiful Revisited:  Women, Philanthropy, and Power. Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Bickford and Reynolds (2002) “Activism and Service-Learning: Reframing Volunteerism as Acts of Dissent” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture 2(2)

Blackstone, Amy.  (2004)  “It’s Just about Being Fair:  Activism and the Politics of Volunteering in the Breast Cancer Movement.  Gender and Society 18(3) pp. 350-368

Shragge, Eric.  (2000)  Activism and social change: lessons for community and local organizing.

Eliasoph, Nina.  (1998)  Avoiding Politics:  How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Katz, Michael B.  (1996)  In the Shadow of the Poorhouse:  A Social History of Welfare in America.  New York, Perseus Books.


  1. thank you so much for this Lori. It is really extremely useful.

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