Aristotle famously argued that a well-ordered political regime is a form of political friendship, so when thinking about philanthropy it pays to consider what mode of civic relatedness it is and whether it can fulfill the demands of good order.

First, what do we mean by friendship?

For one thing, friendship requires proximity. We have to have the capacity to meet with our friends, to share time and space with them, and to take upon ourselves one another’s burdens. Distance is deadly to friendship, for it alters its nature as a continuous sharpening of one another.

Friendship is thus intimate, we have to know one another well in order to determine what's genuinely best for our friend. We know that what might be the best thing for one person might not be for another; and strategies that work well with one might not with another.

This intimacy is cultivated at a deep level that can't be easily electronically duplicated.

Another aspect of proximity is that friends can provide immediate help in times of crisis. If I break my leg and can't mow my lawn, no government or philanthropic agency will do that for me, but a friend will. If I have a serious health alteration and find myself in a hospital, it is the friend who visits me, who tends to me, who cares for things on the home front, who comforts my family. Accepting such gestures from a friend requires accepting my own vulnerability and dependency on others. Such swallowing of one’s pride helps to make a person more grateful, and thus more human.

Likewise, I'm willing to swallow my pride because I know that over time our positions are likely to be reversed, and then I can show the magnanimity to my friend that he had shown to me.

Friendship thus requires both reciprocity and perpetuity. Friends don't keep ledgers, but they understand there is a give and take to the relationship; sometimes you pick up the check and sometimes your friend does. This give and take extends to the conversations you have with one another – sometimes you are the source of enlightenment or correction and other times the recipient.

You are placed into a context where you share the center with another and do not occupy it alone. It chips away at your natural narcissism. It helps you become a better version of yourself, and does this slowly over time. This is why loyalty is such a central virtue of friendship: it holds things together even when our natural human tendencies toward indolence or destruction might threaten to blow them apart.

Likewise, it is only in friendship that we are truly known. In a mass and rootless society we are often displaying masks, creating images of ourselves. But our friends know what is behind the mask because they have been where we are and seen who we are over a long period of time. We may fool others, but we can't fool them. As a result, they help heal the fractured identities that often set a private self against a public one.

This may be thought of as a definition of character: that a person is the same person in all circumstances.  His identity is stable. Such stabilizing influence is one of the true gifts of friendship.

Likewise, friendship testifies to a relative equality among human beings. In book 3 of his Politics, Aristotle discusses how “an excess of the goods of this world” violates the principles of reason, and this in part because it makes friendship (civic or otherwise) difficult.

Only with great effort can friends negotiate massive differentials in wealth or ability (which is why people tend to cluster around those with similar IQs and incomes; it's also why the newly rich tend to stay closest to those who knew them before they became rich).

It requires no small amount of self-awareness, for example, for the poorer friend not to take the other’s largesse for granted, or for the richer friend to appreciate the financial constraints that limit the poorer friend’s options. An uncomfortable honesty, which human beings do not excel at, is required to manage such affairs.

All of which is to testify that if, in fact, social life is to be a kind of civic friendship, the requisites of proximity, perpetuity, reciprocity, equality, dependency, and wanting what is genuinely good for the other based on our intimate knowledge of him or her would have to be attended to. The absence of such structures cannot be compensated for by large-scale systems thinking.

One way to think of that is as follows: if I am the “giver,” I am typically in a position where the recipient is in no position to refuse my charity, and if the recipient does refuse it, it does me no harm.

But both of those things are manifestly not the case in friendship, where a friend could refuse my charity, and such refusal would be a deep disruption of the friendship itself. The potential for such disruptions testifies to the fact that we are not dealing with enormous power differentials, with their potential to dehumanize both parties.

In that sense, large-scale systems-giving removes itself from that which is truly human and which we can properly call civic friendship.