That’s a Philanthropist

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 26th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Regular readers of this blog know that I worry a lot about the future of philanthropy:  are we raising children to embrace and understand philanthropy? Will there be philanthropists for tomorrow? What are nonprofits doing to secure their philanthropists of tomorrow?  What are the unique challenges of raising children to be philanthropists in a country) where advertisements regularly suggest that everyone can have anything s/he wants, regardless of its cost; where instant gratification rules?

But of late, I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t be worrying about the future, as the problem is already here.  It may even be of crisis proportions.

Etymologically, philanthropy comes from the Greek philanthropia meaning humanity and benevolence; more specifically, it derives from phil meaning loving and anthropos  meaning mankind.  Put it all together, and today we define philanthropy as actively working to promote the well being of humankind.  This may involve the expenditure of money—a narrow interpretation that too many bring to philanthropy.  But more often than not it involves those simple acts of kindness, done on a small and personal scale, such as helping a neighbor, or a large and perhaps impersonal scale, such as tutoring underserved children, building houses for the homeless or serving food to the hungry.  It may be stuffing envelopes or serving on a nonprofit board.  But it is done because the doer wants to and not to win points won, curry favor, build resumes.  It is done because philanthropists want to see the lot of all humankind be the best it can be.

Earlier this week, I was in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, a county that shares borders with Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, and Somerset County, home of theFlight 93 Memorial.  Greensburg, where I actually was and which is Westmoreland’s county seat, is approximately 33 miles from Pittsburgh and 45 miles from the Flight 93 Memorial.

While in Greensburg, I was told of the young man who is earning his Eagle Scout by raising money to furnish 15 benches to be placed throughout the “Remember Me Rose Garden.”  When people challenged him, suggesting that this was too big a project for one person to take on—each bench costs $350—he was firm in his belief that this was the project for him.  As of the other day, he had six benches to go.  That is philanthropy.

But back in Westmoreland County, 15 miles from its county seat, I was told the KKK is holding meetings and railing about illegal aliens.  That is not philanthropy.  The Marcellus Shale Field runs a huge swath of land starting in southern New York State, running through Pennsylvania (including Somerset and Westmoreland Counties, among many others) and West Virginia, with bits in Kentucky, Ohio and into Canada.  Some players in the fracking industry, I am told, are engaging in human trafficking to secure its workers.  That is not philanthropy.  But they are the stories I was told in the course of a four-hour visit.

On my drive, I heard a very brief interview with Rodney King about his new book, The Riot Within:  My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.  The reporter asked King about the remarks he made in an effort to stop the riots that ensued after his beating.  “People,” he said, “I just want to say, … can we all get along?”  King explained that his attorneys had prepared a much angrier statement for him to read, but he couldn’t do it.  He didn’t want to fan the fires; so, he spoke, impromptu, he said, echoing the teachings of his mother and of his upbringing in a multicultural faith and community, where the rule was you didn’t threaten people in your house.  “America’s my house,” he said in the NPR interview.  That’s philanthropy!

I recently volunteered for my local MS Walk, charged with registering volunteers and ensuring that key tasks were covered. There weren’t enough of us, so people were forced to do triple and quadruple duty to get everything done.  I ran into a friend there who is the executive director of a nonprofit which requires frequent travel.  She’s in school, retooling for her third career.  Two of her children are grown and out of the house, one is a senior in high school, and her fourth is a paraplegic who lives nearby.  As a mother, she runs an annual charity event in honor of her daughter who was catastrophically injured in a sledding accident.  In its 10th year, it has raised over $1M, distributed it to organizations that do spinal cord injury research, providing care and quality of life improvements.  She’d already been to church that morning and was now walking to help stamp out MS.  Why was she there?  Because one of her board members has MS.  That’s a philanthropist!

All too frequently, I hear people citing as the reason they aren’t philanthropists.  They just simply don’t have the time to care about and for mankind.  Really?  According to the New York Times, in 2010 the average American watched 34 hours of  TV a WEEK!  When I ask board members, what’s the average number of hours it takes to be a good board member for your organization, the #1 answer is 7-10 hours a month.  According to Ipsos Media, in 2011, 78% of Americans were connected to the web and were spending, on average, 30 hours a week online watching videos, shopping, sharing photos, etc.  Oh, people have time.  Time isn’t what appears to be lacking; it’s the benevolence, the caring, the love.

We have a choice:  we can be a society where in the 21st century the KKK can still live, trafficking in young girls is allowed, people can go hungry, folks don’t know how to read.  Or, we can care about humankind—all of it.  Are there enough philanthropists in our house?








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