phi·​lan·​thro·​py –  fə-ˈlan(t)-thrə-pē 

goodwill to fellow members of the human race; active effort to promote human welfare; an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes.

If you look up the definitions of ‘philanthropy’, nowhere will you find mention of personal wealth or the need to be rich. Yet today, it’s often thought that philanthropy is the domain of those with uber personal wealth and foundations with very deep pockets. This is not to say that the world’s wealthiest individuals and foundations don’t do enormous good with their money in helping to eradicate disease, foster innovation, and to support the arts, just to name a few things. The point is that it’s not an exclusive club, or at least I don’t believe it has to be.

Who is a philanthropist?

I caught some flack a couple of years back when my artist statement for an exhibit I was having included that I’m an “artist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist”. The intention was not to be self-aggrandizing, but to point out that artists come in lots of shapes and sizes, with many interests, and that my partner, Jim, and I are committed to doing all the good we can with the resources we have created together. The common comeback was, “isn’t that what you call the Gates, or Ford Foundation, or Carnegie’s or…” – you can fill in the blanks. I was a bit taken back and stopped using the term for a while, but it bothered me that my deep passion for giving and helping didn’t measure up to the word, simply because I have less.

The advent of micro lending has taught us that all people, not just huge banks and international organizations, can make a difference in helping to lift people out of poverty – not a handout but a hand up. Nonprofits like Heifer International and Kiva provide an accessible platform for anyone to assist entrepreneurs all over the world to start businesses which can sustain themselves and provide food, shelter, education, and living wages for their families. In some cases, like Heifer, it is a requirement that beneficiaries of a gifted animal pay it forward to others creating multiple and ongoing lifecycles of opportunity; or with Kiva you can continue to re-donate your initial $25 loan over and over again. These organizations take a modest original contribution and turn it into a powerful cyclical gift.

This topic came to mind again recently, when I was speaking with an educator and collaborator on an important nonprofit project. She is the Dean of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences for a local college, as well as a first-generation college graduate who worked hard to put herself through an undergraduate program, Master’s, and Ph.D. She went on to teach at liberal arts colleges on the east coast for decades before coming to lead the liberal arts and social science programs at our very innovative, inclusive, and transformational community college.

While speaking with this collaborator, she shared with me that she has never been wealthy, has had to work hard for the life that she has created for herself and son, but that she gives monthly, every month, to a children’s research hospital. Her donation is not large but it’s consistent. She embodies what I believe to be philanthropy and being a philanthropist at its purist.

We can all practice philanthropy, regardless of our wallets.

I will continue to be a philanthropist, and label myself as such, through giving, volunteering, and advocating for causes that I believe are important and worthy. I’d like to call on all of you to join the club and share three simple things that we/you can do:

  1. Make a “continuity” donation: a monthly donation, no matter what size, that allows the organization to know and budget for the income that people like you are sending. It adds up and allows organizations to point to this stable donation base with lenders, granters, and donors, which has great value to their development efforts far beyond the size of your donation.
  2. Volunteer your time: Nowhere does it say that there’s a minimum cash donation required to “make an active effort to promote human welfare”. Many, maybe all, nonprofits need help in executing their missions, but are often stretched very thin when it comes to human resources. Your time may help them save an animal from a no-kill shelter, rescue a child sheltering in place with an abuser, or feed a family struggling to make it despite their hard work – the list is endless.
  3. Advocate for causes and organizations that are important to you and your communities: Money is important but equally so is awareness. Become a storyteller for the nonprofit(s) that you care about. Be ready to tell their story to friends, family, your network, to your Chamber of Commerce, BNI, Rotary Club, or other organizations that you might be involved with – your words may well inspire others to support the cause you care so much about.

In conclusion…

Many of us want to do more in our communities, but feel a financial obstacle in our way. While it would be wonderful to have the kind of income that allows us to make donations with lots of zeros to the nonprofits we believe in, large financial donations are not the only way to practice philanthropy.