Taking Back Philanthropy
What does the word philanthropy mean to you?
When I was young, growing up in a small town where no one really had much but they had enough, the word did not belong to us. Philanthropy, it seemed, belonged to a whole other caste of individuals. They were faces I’d see on the six o’clock news, much older and whiter and well off than anyone I knew. They gave giant cardboard cheques to hospitals, their names in bold, stark letters on the side of buildings.
As a child, I didn’t have much interest in philanthropy. And quite frankly, philanthropy didn’t have much interest in me.
When the boy in my older brother’s grade was diagnosed with a terminal illness, there were no giant cheques. When our skating rink, the hub of our tiny town, began to collapse, no one in a linen pant suit swooped in to save the day. When my aunt, while on a trip to the States, went into labour early and lost her twin boys, no stark bold letters in someone else’s name could ease the emotional or financial devastation. When my best friend nearly died in a car accident that took her grandmother’s life, no old white dude helped bring her and her family any kind of comfort.
We didn’t have a Bruce Wayne.
As one small girl with a big heart, this was devastating. More devastating was watching the pain in the faces of my parents, grandparents, friends, extended family, and community members, struck with grief and wondering “what now?”
But we had each other.
If you aren’t from a small town, I am unsure how to describe to you the magic that happens when people use what they have to do what they can. Certainly, it’s similar in all communities across the globe, and ours was not special. If your eyes are open, you see it everyday.
The entire town rallied to fundraise, and pushed hard so that my brother’s classmate could take a special trip with his family.
Every man, woman and child became financially and physically invested in building a brand new skating rink.
My family raised their voices, and people from across North America helped pay my aunt’s out-of-country medical bills.
I used all my savings to buy my friend treats and toys and flowers and special things throughout her recovery.
And all along, I never realized that this was philanthropy.
Philanthropy. The love of humankind, and that which you do out of this love. Surely, my entire life not only was I taught this, but I experienced it daily and eventually had capacity to enact it myself. None of this would get anyone’s name on a building, but all of it is powerful, meaningful, and the fundamental ingredient if we ever want to make things better. We were doing it all along. We just were never allowed to use such a powerful word for it.
But it is not used in this way. It has come to mean something else, something that only an elite few may consider. Philanthropists are not regular people. To regular people, they are the well-off few who get to give to the things that are important to them.
As I watch the news unfold – from Gaza to Ferguson, two places on opposite sides of the globe, two conflicts that I can’t begin to make sense of but make my heart ache nonetheless – I realize that this beautiful word is completely disconnected from our societal systems.
Let me be clear: a word doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t bring back to life the unarmed young man who was shot six times. It doesn’t end centuries of conflict. It doesn’t even build hospitals or small town rinks.
But it is a word that we ALL have access to, that we ALL have a right to.
The love of humanity does not and never did belong to the 1% – it was ours all along. So I’m taking it back.
I’m taking it back for myself. Because I recognize the difference even the smallest acts of love can have on someone whose life has been so far removed from it that they have trouble even accepting it. For those who have been unloved, and for those who have witnessed how hardened one becomes to the world when the world does not give him the most basic things he needs.
I’m taking it back for my children, who I try to teach in different ways everyday that the need to give is not a weakness, but a necessary strength as they grow and go into a world that desperately needs love. I want them to know it’s okay to give, and that along the way they will be hurt because we cannot always decide who will accept what we have to give. Through this pain, we give all the same.
I’m taking it back for my community, because with diverse needs come diverse solutions. We need hospitals and art galleries, but we need passionate ideas – from all walks of life – to give meaning to the bricks and mortar.
I’m taking it back for my field – because as fundraisers, as people who work in the social sector, for charities and nonprofits, we have a duty to help every single person understand philanthropy as an act we are all capable of.
I’m taking it back for all of humanity, because it belongs to all of us. It belonged to all of us all along, this word beholden to a concept that belongs to no one man but to every single person.
Here it is – take it, it’s yours.
I know, it’s just a word, but by now we should all know better than to assume that a word could hold no power over us. I need not give you a list of every word used to subjugate and silence.
So here. Here it is. Philanthropy. Use it. Say it. Act it. Live it. And, if used in good faith, may no one question your right to give it.