Philanthropy is a uniquely western invention. This act of service, which is practiced by many wealthy individuals in America, has manifested itself in a number of ways by a number of people. It has even produced a form of the original known as “philanthrocapitalism”, a term that is indicative of a process that has received intense criticism by some in the recent years.

But the conversation of how much the rich should give and what the motives behind their giving should be is not what’s in question with this article. Instead, it’s important we take a deeper look at the concept of philanthropy, what helping truly looks like, and how the 19th-century millionaire Andrew Carnegie can help point us in the right direction.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie published an essay entitled, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Here, Carnegie gives the reader some great insight into not only the mind of a multi-millionaire but also into the psyche of a generous philanthropist. But perhaps the most controversial statement in this essay is Carnegie’s insistence that there are two types of poor people.

Carnegie saw and classified a difference between people who are poor due to circumstances largely outside of their control and people who are poor due to a lack of continued fiscal irresponsibility. While many have often misinterpreted his words and wrongly critiqued this argument as harsh, there is something of infinite value that is learned through this sentiment.

Carnegie, whether consciously or not in his essay, draws the philanthropic ventures of the rich into something much more profound than giving money. You see, Carnegie is not arguing that the rich give less, but that they actually give – of themselves – exponentially more. It’s easy for those with a lot of money to give a monetary gift. Not so easy though, is it to engage with a person and truly take into consideration their unique needs. Carnegie agues philanthropy is much more than giving money; it’s about truly helping someone and working to help instill a sense of self-dignity within them and to help instill the belief that they too are deserving of a fair shot in the marketplace of ideas.

In a world that often sees money as the currency of success, it can be difficult to parse through Carnegie’s thoughts. But diligence is the key to understanding, and it’s important we understand how to help our neighbor truly. It may not always be the most beneficial act to give money to everyone who asks. In fact, we may not always have the money to give. But we can always, one way or another, seek to help those in need. And at the heart of Carnegie’s argument is that we, as individuals, have to pay attention to the specific needs of those in distress. And that’s not always as simple as signing a check.