By David R. Murray
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
Translated from the French, noblesse oblige means "nobility obligates." Originally, noblesse oblige was used to suggest that certain requirements of behavior could be legitimately imposed upon persons of noble birth. Noblesse oblige in modern English parlance is a broad literary concept. It suggests that anyone who possesses special talents or gifts is required by society to make the best use of those gifts; that he or she is duty-bound to do his or her best. The concept has been extended to include corporations and even entire nations: a December 14, 1992 article in Time magazine about U.S. involvement in Somalia was titled, "Noblesse oblige for the sole superpower."
A fairly recent term, noblesse oblige was first used in 1837 by F. A. Kemble who wrote in a letter, "To be sure, if 'noblesse oblige,' royalty must do so still more" (OED, p. 453).
The connection between noblesse oblige and royalty continues to this day. It was the title of an April 25, 1994 article in Forbes magazine that profiles Bostonian Martin Lobkowicz, the son of a Czech aristocrat, who fled the Czech Republic at the age of 10. With Czech democratization, Martin Lobkowicz was able to reclaim his family's estates. He now owns eight castles, artworks by Canaletto, Rubens, Velazquez, and Brueghel and 40 Spanish portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries. He possesses a library of 70,000 volumes and original musical scores, including Beethoven's original score for the Third Symphony and Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. And he also owns thousands of acres of forests, a brewery dating to 1466, a vineyard, a spa, and a letter from Beethoven begging the family to increase his pension. But, he says, "We are merely custodians of the cultural treasures that must be preserved for future generations" (Berman, 1994).
In this case, while Mr. Lobkowicz could sell his family's treasures and collect hundreds of millions of dollars for himself and his family, he feels obligated to maintain them for the people of the Czech Republic. Societal pressures here compel Mr. Lobkowicz to act selflessly and honorably—the very essence of noblesse oblige.
The term has also been recognized by the student recognition organization The National Honor Society. The term noblesse oblige was adopted as the organization's official motto, as stated in their National Constitution (National Honor Society).
The importance is not the definition of noblesse oblige itself, but an understanding of the strength and power the concept wields over many of the world's most successful business and civic leaders, as well as to gifted ordinary individuals. People who do not consider themselves noble (i.e., the beneficiaries of any special skill, talent, or benefit) may feel no external compunction to excel. Yet, if this concept is taken broadly, each can be seen as having unique skills and talents that we are obligated to make the best use of.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
For some donors, a sense of noblesse oblige is the key reason underlying their philanthropic activities. Individuals who possess what they perceive as significant wealth ("significant" being different for every donor) often give money away in an effort to do the right thing. They may feel that their amount of wealth is unfair or unwarranted; they may feel guilty about their riches or selfish if they maintain their wealth for themselves. By sharing their riches (either monetary or otherwise) they may reap great joy.
Noblesse oblige also applies to areas apart from money. A particularly talented administrator or manager may feel obligated to help an organization he or she cares about if the organization is foundering. A parent who enjoys learning may volunteer to teach at his or her child's school. An attorney may provide pro bono services to a church. Noblesse oblige thus may apply to voluntarism as well as to direct gifts of cash.
Key Related Ideas
Noblesse oblige is simply one of many donor motivations for giving. It should be considered at the same time as other donor motivations, including public recognition, belief in the recipient organization's mission, acquisition of social status, mutual aid, serial reciprocity and others. Noblesse oblige is also related to any study of early American philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie's wealth achieved for him a kind of nobility, a nobility which then required him to give away much of his fortune because of noblesse oblige.
Berman, P. (1994, April 25). Noblesse oblige. Forbes, 153(9), 96.
McCarthy, K. (1982). Noblesse oblige: Charity and cultural philanthropy in Chicago, 1849-1929. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Mitford, N. (1956). Noblesse oblige; an inquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy. London, H. Hamilton.
National Honor Society. NHS Constitution. Accessed 24 February 2005.
The Oxford English Dictionary. (1989). New York: Oxford University Press.
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