Canned Heat: Amateur Philanthropy

Amateur –  from the Latin amatorum, “lover”

Expert – from the Latin experiri, ” to try, to test”

Professional – from the Latin agent noun profiteri, “lay claim to”

Novice – from the Latin novicius, “newly imported, inexperienced (as referring to slaves)”

Philanthropy – from the Latin  philanthropos, “love of mankind”

Hm. Two of these words have a lot more in common than the others. I’m not here to attack professionals of any sort – I am grateful everyday for the guidance I receive from many mentors in the non-profit world who have had years of experiri, who began as amatorum, moved through the novicius stage and are now of the profiteri, all in the name of philanthropos. So many of these individuals deserve to be applauded – they are incredible minds and do mind blowing work while remaining humble (the roots of which unfortunately lie far too close to humiliation, and so I instead will say unpretentious, non-pretending.)

But a lot have lost the amatorum, replacing it instead with a strange kind of profiteri – a sense of laying claim to the practice.

By now you’ve likely stopped paying attention to what I’m saying and wondering why the hell I started with the dance scene from Napoleon Dynamite.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know the context – Napoleon, an outcast, takes part in his school’s political process by performing a dance in support of another outcast who is running for school president. Before Napoleon takes the stage, Summer (the “prom queen”) takes the stage to spout some typical popular girl pablum, followed by a “legitimate” and choreographed performance with a group of popular girls. Of course we expect the amateur, Napoleon, in his strange ladies winter boots and homemade tee shirt, to be laughed at and ridiculed, and of course (as we also expect) the crowd goes wild for his display. And we love it too. Why?

It is both terrible and amazing. Though its ridiculousness aids in unfolding how ludicrous the popular girls’ display was, it mainly inspires us. He is clearly not a professional dancer. But he totally fucking rocks it in a way that, deep down, we all kind of wish we had the balls to. It is amateur to its core – Napoleon is a lover of dance, and clearly has sweet dance moves beyond any choreographed dance troupe.

I truly believe you need to be a lover of humankind to do this kind of work. I think deep down we all are. But when is the last time you let your amateur heart rise above the noise of profiteri experiri (laying claim because of experience)?

Recently, I was part of a national resource development committee. Around the table sat the most intelligent, passionate and wise fundraisers I have ever met. They brought together nearly a century of practice between them. And yet we were all frustrated and stalled by the same bureaucratic inertia. I took it upon myself to be the Napoleon of the group – asking the radical questions and dancing the flailing dance of an amateur – I certainly didn’t cure the inertia, but I left feeling like I had given every one of those amazing professionals around the table something to think about, a new perspective. And they certainly did laugh. Maybe it’s the entitled millennial in me that makes me want to rock my own sweet dance moves, but I also want to see us all willing to take steps beyond the tried and true to truly connect with each other.

Napoleon challenges the status quo in a way that only someone who doesn’t fully know (or care for) the rules could. When best practice is enforced for the sake of process instead of the people, our appeals, thank yous, recognition, strategy, approach, etc, end up looking like a cheesy choreographed dance. When we have the balls to ask ridiculous questions of ourselves and attempt something radical, creative and innovative… well, it could either blow up in our faces or we could convince the unconvincable, and have the whole room vote for Pedro.