Writing Your Philanthropic Autobiography
Autobiographies and memoirs are all the rage. The New York Times has called our current context the “Age of Memoir.” It appears that we love to learn from the lives of those that have gone before or those that walk alongside us. For those of us that share a sense of spirituality, morality, and the divine, the magnetic pull toward memoir suggests a religious dimension to the telling of any life. As Duke Divinity School professor and accomplished memoirist, Richard Lischer has noted, life “begins in mystery and ends in faith. So compelling is the mystery that it must be puzzled over and prayed out and finally written down.”1
Socrates’ most famous philosophical maxim was “know yourself!” This is not only true for one’s spiritual journey, but it also the first step in nurturing generosity. As a central aspect of our educational courses at Lake Institute, we ask that individuals step back and reflect on their own philanthropic autobiography.
The concept is not new. Paul Schervish, Director Emeritus of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, has spent a career studying the moral life of philanthropists. He has focused on developing a framework for exploring an individual’s moral biography, which he finds vital in developing virtuous giving. It’s not enough that one gives to various causes. How do our passions, vocations, and gifts align with why and how we give? Most often we move too quickly to the technical – cultivating generosity and philanthropy for our particular cause by examining prospects and examining gift range charts. We would be wise, however, to step back and consider how generosity is nurtured over a life. What are the childhood experiences, communal practices, and spiritual intersections with why and how we give?
In our courses, the Philanthropic Autobiography is an opportunity to step back and think consciously about your own involvement with giving, volunteering, and charitable activities. It is also your opportunity to recall the ways in which you came to experience and learn about giving and volunteering as well as rediscover what it is in your story that motivates you to be generous with your time and money on behalf of others. While not exhaustive, we believe these questions might be a starting point for examining one’s life and engaging in a broader philanthropic conversation.
1. What is your earliest family memory of giving and volunteering?
2. What are some of the practices of faith and giving that you remember from your childhood?
3. Who have been some of your philanthropic heroes and role models in life?
4. To what people and places do you feel a sense of gratitude?
5. What are the one or two life experiences that have shaped who you are today?
6. What is precious to you? What values do you want to pass on to your family and friends?
We encourage individuals to take time to reflect on these questions. As leaders, if we are not clear about our own philanthropic motivations, it is difficult for us to engage with others around their spiritual motivations for giving. Our philanthropic giving stories are communal, but they are also quite personal. We devour memoir and autobiography, and we are often quite open with our own journey, but we rarely take the time to reflect on how our values and spirituality affect our giving. We know that generosity is a way of life – it is not simply the total of our annual philanthropic gifts. Taking the time to reflect on how and why we give will help us to refocus our efforts as leaders and fundraisers, as well as offer an opportunity for donors to center their own philanthropy as part of their faith commitments.
1 Richard Lischer, “Writing the Christian Life: The Essence of Spiritual Memoir,” August 24, 2015, The Christian Century, online.
2 Paul Schervish, “The Moral Biography of Wealth: Philosophical Reflections on the Foundation of Philanthropy” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (September 2006) vol. 35 no. 3: 477-492.