The Sector’s Much Needed New Year’s Resolution: Redefine Our Culture of Philanthropy
Amongst the two cohorts of AFP Inclusive Giving Fellows, there is a combination of new graduates, volunteers, founders of social profits, community organizers, consultants and more working in the fields of education, public policy, youth engagement and beyond; all of us joined by the common interest of leading the fundraising profession to “…better reflect and respect the faces, contributions, experiences, and needs of the many communities that make up this remarkably diverse country”.1 I wholeheartedly believe in this aspiration, and am enthused to be part of it; however, for such change to happen, all of us – Inclusive Giving Fellows and all social profit professionals – must shift our understanding and practice of philanthropy. A more comprehensive definition of philanthropy, and broader application of the term is fundamental and essential for the fundraising profession, and social profit sector, to become the inclusive environment we all want it to be.
My motive for challenging the current concept and understanding of philanthropy – one rooted primarily in the amount of money individuals raise or donate – stretches back to a memory that occurred a few months after my 11th birthday. During that summer, I traveled to Kampala, Uganda with my immediate family where my young brother and I met our extended family for the first time. We were welcomed with the grandest of celebrations, complete with singing, dancing, tears of joy, marking the end of a 10+ year homecoming for my mother. With it being my first time travelling outside of North America, I was naively unaware of the social, political and economic inequalities faced by the majority of my people, related by lineage or otherwise; but what I did know is that every act from any person I met was one of kindness, regardless of how much or little they had to give. Although in that moment I did not know the exact path or venture, I returned to Ottawa, Canada knowing I wanted to do meaningful work in the social profit sector. Be it daily drives to and from work during rush hour traffic, a monetary donation to help with expenses during an unpaid internship or home cooked meals with what little food an individual had in their cupboard, I saw and was on the receiving end of many recurring acts of philanthropy; not limited to how much money one gives, but different acts of kindness contributing to the betterment of others.
Fast forward 10 years later, having completed an undergraduate degree in Global Development Studies and with a few years of professional work experience under my belt, I made the decision to head back to the classroom to pursue a certificate in Fundraising Management. It was during this time while doing my first set of readings that I saw the original meaning of philanthropy that I argue must be re-adopted by the sector:
Philanthropy (Greek – love of humanity) is an act of kindness, of love, of sympathy with humankind, especially as shown in the efforts in the improvement of social conditions and in works of charity and benevolence.2
Philanthropy is a participatory and democratic process which involves giving, asking, joining and serving. It is not a multiple choice. In a vigorous society, people must engage in every aspect of the process.3
It is evident the concept of philanthropy has evolved and changed in different ways and in a variety of dynamic operating environments over time; however the current, and often most recognized concept of philanthropy – focused predominantly on money raised or donated by mostly older, white individuals – is limiting. In-comprehensive studies and flashy infographics, such as the Fraser Institute’s recent research stating donations in Canada has hit an all-time low,4 that focus on only one dimension of charitable giving only heightens the risk of further excluding individuals from other backgrounds and experiences that are in fact philanthropists through and through. By contrast, a well rounded culture of philanthropy is comprised of three parts: time, talent and/or money. Speaking personally, my passion and action as a philanthropist has been evolving since my early schooling. Such acts include my involvement in Jump Rope for Heart, back in elementary school where I gave of my time going door-to-door to raise funds, sharing information about the need for research to prevent heart disease and strokes and raising awareness about my intent to skip rope alongside my classmates in support of survivors and their families. My philanthropic acts continued where a number of years later I was involved in my school’s Student Council with the goal of increasing school spirit through assemblies and social activities. As well, during my time at university, I volunteered and played music for an individual with developmental disabilities. These are but a few instances of time, talent and money, all of which fall under the definition above of what it means to exercise philanthropy. However, these acts did not necessarily receive acknowledgement or recognition as philanthropy because they did not always directly raise much, if any, money. By continuing to promote a narrative where philanthropic success is linked so strongly to dollars raised, we diminish any opportunity for philanthropy to be more inclusive.
So in this upcoming year, I urge all of us, more than ever, to revisit our current practices around philanthropy, educate and learn from others and truly begin to further cultivate and practice a culture of philanthropy that is all-inclusive of its original meaning. That is, regardless of age, years of experience, titles or distinction, philanthropy is possible (and already exists!) in each and every one of us, and has greater potential to enhance and transform the Canadian social profit landscape to reflect the diversity of the communities in it.
- Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). (2006). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated
- Richard L. Payton, Centre on Philanthropy at Indiana University