Politics, commerce, and technology dominate the news. Philanthropy is covered in exceptional cases when remarkably large sums of money are in play, or when something goes wrong and we see good intentions thwarted or unmasked. You would not be faulted for thinking that philanthropy plays but a minor role in shaping our world. That would be a mistake.
To engage the world effectively, and to understand yourself, you need to understand philanthropy. And the better you understand it the more effective you will be.
Generosity is one of the most potent forces in our daily lives, yet it is too often overlooked. Long before toddlers learn norms of politeness, they respond instinctively to help someone who is dropping an object. Markets and nonviolent politics have a hard time getting going without norms of trust and comity; habits of getting along with an expanding sphere of others built on our capacity for generosity.
We know a lot about living in very complex societies and have succeeded in arranging our affairs without paying a lot of attention to generosity as a force that has been with us through the journey. To keep moving forward, however, we need to pay much more attention to philanthropy.
By making more explicit what is often in the background, we will be more enlightened about our world and ourselves, and more capable of engaging our own generosity and that of others.
Philanthropy is key to our public lives. Giving time and money and advocating for causes accomplishes many useful things. Look around and imagine what the world would be like without universities, houses of worship, hospitals, shelters, and museums and parks, to name a few of the major activities supported by philanthropy. But suppose that you believe that these things could be more effectively provided for by tax dollars, or that more tax dollars should be expended on such efforts because everyone benefits from them?
Many developed countries spend a lot more public money and less philanthropic support on delivering social services and funding cultural and educational institutions than the United States does. There is a robust debate about the role philanthropy should play in supporting public institutions and solving “pressing issues” that affect us all. Given that total giving in the U.S. is about 65 percent as large as non-defense discretionary federal spending, we should all be interested in the role of philanthropy, the players involved, and what we know about their impact.
Beyond the general amount of financial giving in our society, we are seeing more very wealthy people and institutions exerting their influence through giving. Even if you think that some of the companies that have generated terrific wealth should be broken apart or even nationalized, your argument will carry further if you can analyze and communicate about the current era of elite philanthropy. It is both the value created by the companies and giving by their founders and owners that helps secure their status in society. What is their status? Is it warranted? What do you think?
If, on the other hand, you are enamored by the cross-pollination of commerce and philanthropy under the guise of social entrepreneurship or impact investing, you would do well to clarify for yourself how the free market and the “grants economy,” based on giving, complement or clash with each other.
Clearly, philanthropy is at the heart of discussions about the future of our societies.
Beyond the power of wealth to generate a surplus that can benefit the public, our communities and our polity depend on voluntary engagement and civic expression that are compelled by no one. This multitude of voluntary engagements and expressions constitutes the broad sense of philanthropy that shapes our world. So regardless of the work you do in your life, the context of how you choose to shape your communities and your country will be influenced by your philanthropy and those of many others. This context of philanthropy will also influence whatever business, nonprofit, or government you work for.
So, to understand the world, you need to study philanthropy. How did social movements change fundamental norms about race and gender, peace and war over time and across cultures? How did the funding of settlement houses change immigration? How will current expressions of solidarity and protest shape our social and political landscape, and how can we inform ourselves about current philanthropic dilemmas by consulting historical antecedents and analogs?
A fuller understanding of the world created by voluntary action, in turn, helps you to be more effective. How do you motivate others to join a cause you care about? Knowing something about this can be handy no matter what “industry” you make your career in, be it public, nonprofit, or for-profit.
But perhaps more important than motivating others is motivating yourself.
To understand yourself, you also need to think about philanthropy. A good education is a process of self-discovery, at the same time that you are preparing to make contributions to others. What do you want to give to the world? What values do you hold dear? What matters to you? Even if you have little patience for examining your own values, doing so will equip you to deal with the beliefs and experiences of others who affect your lot in the world. Knowing what you wish to give will also help you get what you want.
Of course, what you want may change as a result of your philanthropic education.
Philanthropy is not a decorative dusting on the substance of what we do, it is often at the core of why we have the world we do. Understanding it helps you better appreciate the creative wonders of human generosity. With this appreciation you can build your own sense of what you wish to contribute.
So “Why philanthropy?” Because the world is made of it and you should make your mark with it.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean