Culture 4 Giving: Getting Back to Our Roots of Collective Action
When I was growing up, I was surrounded by adults who modeled giving: to church via tithes and offerings, local nonprofit causes such as food and clothing drives and — my parents’ favorite — donations for the children served by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Those same adults also modeled doing, too. My parents took in neighborhood kids for dinner who they knew wouldn’t eat otherwise. My mother earned less than $10,000 as a public school teacher’s assistant, but she and her fellow educators always found a way to have extra pens, crayons and pairs of pants or socks (sometimes recycled from their own children’s closets) to hand out on the first day of school. And during the summer, when we kids ran and biked freely without a care in the world, one of the parents would kindly tell us to put our stuff away and march over to the neighborhood senior rehabilitation center to “do whatever the nuns tell you to do” (unrecognized candy stripers is what we called that!).
I also know firsthand how the generosity of others can save a family — namely, mine. The tide can turn so quickly from having to needing that it was only later, looking back with adult eyes, that I realized the church deacons who stopped by our house with an envelope were handing over money they collected to help my parents pay the mortgage after my father was laid off from his job of 16 years.
I am a product of these experiences, which taught me the importance of helping others. They also taught me the power of coming together as community to do so — a lesson that I think we in philanthropy can also apply to our work. As the old English proverb says, “Many hands make light work.” Given the swarm of concerns that plague us locally and globally, now is the time to embrace that no problem will be solved, or mission achieved, without philanthropy working together and more fully supporting a collective approach. Now is the time to identify philanthropic partners who share our goals, pool our financial and human capital and get to work.
I firmly believe seeing the givers and doers throughout my childhood led me to work in philanthropy. To my family and close friends, I describe my various roles in philanthropy as God’s work through me. My family’s history is rooted in faith and service, so when I think about culture, I often think about the church, our community and the friends and family who believed — though our cultures and beliefs varied — that we could get through just about anything if we did it together. We set aside racial, ethnic and religious differences. We all worked side by side. We helped one another.
Philanthropy can be just as focused on perpetuity as it can on results. I have witnessed institutions with millions and billions in assets and the desire to change the world attack that very mission as a solo practitioner. “If you know one foundation, then you know one foundation” is a phrase we in philanthropy have often heard. “Special snowflakes” is a term often bantered about to describe how each philanthropic institution strives for a uniqueness amongst peers.
But it begs the question: Who achieves anything alone? Bill Gates will go down in history as one of the most prolific philanthropists and entrepreneurs. But even he had Paul Allen to help start Microsoft. John S. Knight had his brother James to help in the news business and share a vision that philanthropy was a noble ambition and the best use of his wealth and resources.
The inspiration, ingenuity and sheer luck of a single individual can result in financial gains well beyond our means to spend. But most U.S. philanthropic giving comes from the collective contributions of individuals, who often donate $50 or less to their favorite nonprofit, school or church. And the tax dollars we each pay make it possible for our government to assist millions of individuals and fund various efforts to improve people’s lives.
So, to black philanthropy, all philanthropy, and others seeking to make a difference: There are organizations and individuals who share your passion to help others and to solve big issues. Find them. Talk with them. Ask the people you seek to help what they need and how you can best assist. Be givers. Be doers. And let’s do it together.
Guest post by Satonya Fair, The Annie E. Casey Foundation