“If people are informed they will do the right thing. It’s when they are not informed that they become hostages to prejudice.” —Charlayne Hunter-Gault
IN THE SPRING OF 2014, a nine-year-old boy named Hector Montoya from Grand Prairie, Texas heard about a local fire that took the lives of a young mother and her daughter. Learning that some people didn’t have smoke alarms in their homes, and the fact that a simple solution could have saved their lives, he decided to use the $300 he’d saved up to purchase a PlayStation 4 to buy one hundred smoke detectors for people in his community, and the local fire department installed them. He was quoted as saying, “… I decided saving a life was more important.” Once Hector became informed about an issue, he acted on his belief that some things are more important than his immediate wants and needs. Hector is more than just a nice boy; he’s a philanthropist.
Donors give money and volunteers give time; these are actions that are transactional in nature, they are things that you do. A philanthropist, however, is transformational. She recognizes that she is one part of a whole, and that her needs and wants are no greater or less than anyone else’s. A philanthropist considers the larger implications of her actions, thinking strategically and acting with intention. She is motivated by a deep compassion and a sense of justice. The basis of philanthropy is unwavering love for others and an essential understanding of connection. It’s time we embrace the word philanthropist to describe ourselves when we put others’ needs before our own wants, because the words we use to describe ourselves send powerful messages about our values and our passions. What we call things matters.
Your journey in philanthropy begins when you seek information in order to understand your world and your role in it. First, you gain knowledge about yourself by discovering the story of your deepest passions and values. Then you tap into the breadth of resources you have at your disposal and discover creative ways to employ them. At this stage, the information itself becomes fodder for additional inquiry. Why you value something says a lot about where and how you grew up. How does this inform your giving practice? Recognizing the gifts you have to give says something about the value you place on your time and skills. How does this information expand or contract your ability to give? These are foundational pieces in your philanthropic plan.
Once you’ve created an informed internal compass, you can turn your attention to your community and your world. It’s important here to also get a historical perspective on philanthropy, as this shines a light on the systems that make it necessary. Embedded in this knowledge is a maturing awareness of the part you play in upholding or challenging the issues and systems you’re trying to influence and impact. Being informed means you can no longer look the other way when you witness injustice. You have developed curiosity and questioning, and you allow new information to alter your beliefs. Being informed gives you the stamina to commit to long-term action because you are no longer a hostage to unexamined prejudices.
You are a philanthropist
“One must be something to do something.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I have a friend who is an accomplished artist, with gallery showings, commissions, and paintings sold—yet she told me that she hesitates to introduce herself to people as an artist. She feels the label carries ambiguity and expectation. What does it mean to be an artist? She compared these labels, artist and philanthropist, and I realized that the similarity is due to the fact that these words carry visions of actions that may or may not describe your skill or intent. More to the point, being an artist or a philanthropist is more about who you are than what you do. Artist and philanthropist are descriptive words that you recognize as integral to your character, regardless of how other people view you. You might be a well-known and revered artist, but being well-known and revered isn’t what makes you an artist. Likewise, you aren’t an artist just because you say you are, you have to back it up with action. You can’t tell people you’re an artist but never paint or write or sculpt, just as saying you’re a philanthropist doesn’t automatically make you compassionate and generous. You are something because you act on it, but how you act on it is part of the definition.
It’s my mission to cultivate and nurture philanthropy in our communities, starting with individuals recognizing the power of their giving. Part of this conversation is rooted in understanding the enormous shift occurring in our economic system. There has never been a more important time to use everything you have to join the movement of doing good in the world. The needs are great and being a part of the solution is engaging and challenging and fun. My work in the nonprofit sector, both as a grant seeker and grant maker, had me mulling over this idea about increasing the pie. How do we find the means to support all the worthy causes in the world? How do we eradicate domestic violence and stop global warming? How do we address childhood obesity and keep animals from going extinct? It’s not just about throwing more money at the problems, because often the problems get worse or they shapeshift into something else. We’ve gotten better at evaluating effectiveness and creating metrics to score charities doing the work, yet the problems persist. Sometimes we find we’ve been throwing money at the wrong things.
Philanthropy today is demanding we open ourselves to creating better systems: systems that understand money is just one element; systems that recognize that all people have value. Each one of us is a part of this solution, which makes it imperative that we develop an awareness of how we fit into the problem and a framework of how to talk about it. We need to understand the ways these problems are interconnected and acknowledge that each one of us is a node. Current technology is creating democratic ways of highlighting the problems and working together to solve them. But do each of us as individual nodes understand our responsibility and how to engage in the conversation? What could change if we knew we were philanthropists?
The next paradigm shift in creating change takes place on the individual level. Growing the pie isn’t just about increasing the amount of money flowing into the system (there’s already a lot of money in there), but about increasing the number of people who see themselves as philanthropists with multiple ways of giving. It’s about restructuring the pie itself and questioning the roots of inequity. We need to recognize that we live within a construct that was only built a few hundred years ago and it is always evolving. We must create the necessary changes to make it work for the world we live in today.
The field of philanthropy has the potential to build a movement of people who align their resources with their values and passions.We need people who find a way to sustain their own focused giving to make small changes around them. And we also need people who reach around the globe to find the network of people doing the same thing. This movement is not limited to an elite group of people with extra money to give, or strictly about money for that matter. In Give Smart, Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman write:
“…the talent transfer is not even remotely confined to wealthy philanthropists. Teach for America is now the largest recruiter at several Ivy League colleges and major universities. In some cases it has attracted applications from over 10 percent of graduating seniors. Among older Americans, the appeal of encore careers is motivating those in their fifties, sixties, and seventies to engage in public service, through both volunteer and paid positions. People of every age are stepping forward to donate their scarce hours to communities and causes they care about—a far more precious and limited resource than any philanthropist’s money.”
The doors of philanthropy are opening wide and people from all stages and walks of life are streaming through. How each of us strategizes and creates a plan for giving will greatly enhance our ability to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.
A brief history of US philanthropy – excerpted from Philanthropy New York
In the United States, philanthropy emerged among immigrants responding to each other’s immediate needs. Strong religious beliefs promoted charity as a way to alleviate the problems of poverty. What we currently understand as modern philanthropy was built on industrial management methods popular in the business world at the end of the nineteenth century. The founding fathers of the philanthropy we’re familiar with today—Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford—provided large-scale donations to address poor social conditions. In “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie asserts that personal wealth beyond what is required to meet the needs of your family should be regarded as a trust fund to benefit your community. Grassroots fundraising and volunteerism grew significantly during WWI due to nationwide organizations that still exist today like the Red Cross and United Way. These organizations helped to democratize charitable giving and volunteering, allowing individuals to contribute to causes in a systemized way. These efforts ultimately gave rise to the Community Foundation movement, which provided an alternative to national organizations, allowing regular community members of modest wealth to pool their money to create change at the local level which helped reshape small towns across the country. Additional legislation was passed in 1917 which allowed Americans to take tax deductions for their giving as a way to avoid personal income tax (a law that had been passed four years earlier). For the past one hundred years, philanthropy has remained largely unchanged: an activity for people of moderate or great wealth to help those lesser than them in exchange for tax breaks.
Paradigm Shift in Philanthropy
The rapid evolution of philanthropy over the last decade is due in part to the rise of technology and social networks, and the emergence of social entrepreneurship and social investing. And this technology is reminding us that philanthropy is meant to be democratic. Philanthropy is for everyone. We can all be strategic and thoughtful in how and when and why we give of ourselves. In the past, philanthropy was a straight transaction: you need, I give. The giving was often impersonal and contained a superior benevolence. In today’s philanthropy, lots of people are involved, using various forms of resources, and they’re working together on very personal issues. Feminist philanthropists are bringing relationships back into the equation, creating an interaction. This interaction, with all of us working together, is transformational; not only for those giving and receiving, but for the wider community they live in. This philanthropy looks different from the philanthropy of the past.
|From Transactional…||…to Transformational|
|By the few; by the wealthy; by the older generation||By the many; by all income levels; by all ages|
|Donating money only; direct service aid; mostly local||Investing time, skills, ideas, money; systems approach; local and global|
|Through large organizations; give on your own||As a community; give with others; internet and phone apps|
|Broad humanitarian goals||Personalized projects with direct feedback|
The emergence of social investing and civic engagement as philanthropic tools provides individuals with new ways to get directly involved with their giving. This transition shifts the power from the elite donor (a few individuals interested in direct service aid to broad humanitarian goals by donating large sums of money) to the network donor (many individuals of all income levels focused on using a systems approach and giving with others to personalized projects), and I would argue that we’re quickly moving past the network donor to the hive philanthropist, someone with a feminist sensibility who operates as a whole and within a whole.
In addition, traditional charities are no longer the sole experts at solving social problems; social entrepreneurs have emerged with system-changing ideas. Technology and our ability to connect with each other as a global community has created opportunities for on-the-ground, real-time, tangible change with the click of a button. Philanthropist becomes synonymous with changemaker, and changemakers aren’t satisfied with the status quo. Changemakers want to see the whole picture, shake up the systems within which we operate, and bring multiple stakeholders to the table. They want to get the job done.
Charity has been seen as something you do for and to others, while philanthropy can be understood as something you do with and by others. Similar to holistic health for a body, philanthropy addresses the underlying issues and grapples with the intricacies of unintended consequences, while charity is the medicine that takes away the pain for a moment.
For real change to occur there needs to be a one-two punch, artfully constructing a new reality by weaving charity throughout philanthropy. This employs a balance between using both your head and your heart. Philanthropy, unlike charity, has the ability to identify the interconnected problems and ascertain which are worth solving. A philanthropist today is aware of the levers of change and the ability of one person to impact a system. She recognizes the vast ecosystem in which we operate, and that there are many ways to shift power and possibility. Being an advocate for humanity and working to see the long view is essential to deepening your philanthropy.
We are at the nexus of change in how we understand our resources. We must acknowledge that while resources are finite, which forces us to be strategic and intentional, there are also numerous untapped resources still available to us (possibly just not yet understood or seen). I was listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the ways in which we perceive our world through our senses, illustrating all the currents of information around us that we don’t tangibly feel, but which are very much real: radio waves, magnetic waves, light, and air currents. All this information is being transmitted around us, but most of it goes unperceived because we don’t have the senses to pick it up. It got me thinking about all the resources we have available to give, both individually and collectively, that go unrecognized because it’s not how we’ve been taught or expected to give…so we don’t classify it as a resource. We actually don’t see it.
Additionally, this idea of untapped resources shifts our accepted concept of “needy” to “grateful receiver” because it acknowledges that we all possess wealth of some sort. We begin to understand the dynamic nature of resources: we all have something to give. We’re all in this together and in order to truly help people, you’ve got to get into the trenches and be with them. When we recognize our common story, our common humanity, we heave ourselves into the picture. No longer on the sidelines of history, we can now engage with the opportunity to participate in global change.
Building transformational change that is sustainable and actionable must always start with an understanding of the existing model and a deep personal commitment to seeing yourself in both the current and future vision. From the 2002 report Transformational Philanthropy: An Exploration, Duane Elgin and Elizabeth Share compiled nine components of transformational initiatives:
- Recognize that we have entered a time of global change and a historic window of opportunity
- Take a whole-systems, integral approach
- Build strength by actively embracing diversity
- Tell a bigger story about the nature and purpose of life
- Bring a reflective consciousness into the functioning of systems
- Foster self-organization at the grassroots level
- Provide leadership that ignites a belief in transformational change
- Approach change in transformational ways
- Recognize and appreciate multiple ways of knowing
If these bullets resonate with you, you’re in the right place. Fighting against what already exists is a losing battle; we are being called to create a new reality.