Recently a friend asked me “so, what is this thing you are studying? Explain it to me in five words or less.” Whoa… what a challenge! I’ve spent the better part of a decade working in and learning about philanthropy and now I find myself tasked with summing it all up in a sentence.
After thinking for a few moments I rambled off something that wasn’t very eloquent and certainly didn’t answer her question. Then, I walked away upset with my failure.
Philosophy teaches us that the simplest answer is usually best. The problems being tackled by philanthropists are anything but simple (e.g., hunger, education reform, child abuse, homelessness, etc.) When I use the term philanthropists I’m referring not just to the individuals who write generous checks to fund this work but also to the amazing men and women who spend time in the trenches, pouring their souls into solving the issues at hand.
At the risk of oversimplifying this complex work and minimizing the heroic dedication of so many philanthropists, I now have an answer for my friend…
At its most basic level, philanthropy is about reminding people that everyone matters.
The hungry person standing on the street corner matters. The student striving for a better education matters. The child housed at the local shelter after being removed from an abusive situation certainly matters. You, dear readers, matter. I matter. Everyone matters.
Why? As humans cohabiting planet Earth, our individual well-being is wrapped up in that of all of mankind.
Ubuntu. I am because you are.
Now, I can’t take credit for articulating this fundamental truth. Oprah has been teaching this for years. As policy makers and foundation professionals make decisions that impact society, we must remember that philanthropy is about people – not faceless statistics on a report but actual individuals striving for the very thing we all want – the best life possible. As my fellow scholars continue to investigate the art and science of philanthropy, I think it is important for us to keep these basics in mind… and I’m grateful to my friend for reminding me of the bigger picture with her one simple question.