I Teach Philanthropy

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 1st, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

Dan Pallotta’s been getting a lot of attention lately.   While I find his message a bit of “heard that before,” I still enjoy hearing his message because of the different ways I receive it.  My response varies depending upon what I’ve been working on or thinking or talking about;  like rereading a good book, wondering how you missed something in an earlier read.
Dan Pallotta

Because I’ve been thinking a lot about philanthropy, his question, whether explicit or not, on who is the true philanthropist really resonated. Who?  The person who dedicates his/her career to working in the sector–be it to help the homeless, provide access to all forms of cultural enrichment, seeks a cure for an illness and in that pursuit helps the many currently suffering. etc–or the person who, over the course of his lifetime, donates thousands, tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to the nonprofit(s) of her choice?

I don’t care so much about who is the “true” philanthropist, as I am neither a philosopher (and don’t really wish to ponder deeply that tree falling in the forest) nor one who cares to label people, but more about understanding this thing called philanthropy and its attendant variations.  Yes, this may sound like  a continuation of my posting from last week.

Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit what I am about to say, but I have never viewed myself as a philanthropist, not even during that brief stint in my career when I worked for one of the major philanthropic institutions in the world.  It wasn’t my sizable dollars that were supporting incredible work around the globe.  Except for one holiday season in high school and my entrepreneurial enterprises–also In high school–all of my work and volunteer time (the latter of which predates high school) has been in the nonprofit sector.  And, although I give consistently in small sums for as long as I have been able (and I am close to retirement age), certainly the insignificant total amount of that giving has never been such that I would be arrogant enough to call myself a philanthropist.

None of this matters to me personally, but it should matter to our sector.  Imagine the questioner’s reaction when you are next asked, “what do you do?” and you respond, “I’m a philanthropist.”  Quite different, I’d bet any amount of money, than if you were to answer, “I run a program for the homeless,” or “I’m the finance manager for an organization that works with people suffering from…,” or whatever your real job is.

I know because I get it all the time. Tell people I am the director of a nonprofit–or even adding “that helps other nonprofits increase their abilities to do their mission work,” and I get no follow-up questions.

Tell them I’m a professor and I used to get all manner of follow-up questions.  That is, when  I  taught criminology.  Today, though, when I say I teach nonprofit leadership (I’m the Director of La Salle’s Masters in Nonprofit Leadership), I get an “Oh,” at best, but mostly nothing.  But what if I said, “I teach present and current philanthropists?”

Why is it that working for a nonprofit engenders such disrespect to the point of dismissal while giving money to support those very same employees and their work engenders respect, appreciation, even awe?

There is, to Pallotta’s point, an incongruity here that only we on the nonprofit side can correct.

As I discussed in last week’s blog, the classic understanding of a philanthropist cannot exist in a vacuum; it absolutely must have its other half–those who do the work philanthropists choose to support. There is no question in my mind as to who is doing the harder work–even taking into consideration the work the traditional philanthropists do to earn the money which they donate to nonprofits.

But take away the philanthropists’ money (as some fear will happen should the charitable deduction be removed from the tax codes)  and the nonprofits will continue to toil doing their good work.

Unfortunately, regardless of the existence of dollars, the hungry will still need to be fed, the ill will still need support, care and a cure.  Communities will always need the benefits that arts and culture add to their well-being.  Our work will always be needed, and is not a choice we can make depending upon the existence of disposable income.  We toil because we know we must, because we know others need us–even depend upon us, more often without even knowing on who or what they are depending–a nonprofit.

If philanthropy is defined as seeking to improve the quality of life for all–who is the true philanthropist?  The person who writes a check once a year, a month, or even daily to support a nonprofit and then goes about with the rest of her/his life that has nothing to do with the world in which nonprofits live and breathe? Or the person who has intentionally compromised his/her lifestyle and those of her/his family in order to work, on a daily basis, to make the world a better place?

You decide.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.