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The Sector's Much-Needed New Year's Resolution: Redefine our Culture of Philanthropy

Resource Center - Foundation

by Gerri Lutaaya

lutaayaBetween 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 are 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 travelled 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, and tears of joy, marking the end of a 10-plus 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. While in that moment I did not know the exact path or venture, I returned to Ottawa knowing I wanted to do meaningful work in the social profit sector.

Whether it was daily drives given to and from work during rush hour, or a monetary donation given to help with expenses during an unpaid internship, or even the giving of 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. I realized "philanthropy" was not limited to how much money one gives, but can be demonstrated through acts of kindness contributing to the betterment of others.

Fast forward ten years later when, 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 that 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.

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. I shared information about the need for research to prevent heart disease and strokes while raising awareness about my intent to skip rope alongside my classmates in support of survivors and their families. My philanthropic acts continued when, 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. 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 original definition of what it means to exercise philanthropy. These acts, however, 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 to revisit our current practices around philanthropy and educate and learn from others so that we may 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. That has great potential to enhance and transform the Canadian social profit landscape to truly reflect the diversity of the communities in it.

Gerri Lutaaya is a bicycle rider, singer, and tea drinker. She is working on her laugh lines.

[2] Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). (2006). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated

[3] Richard L. Payton, Centre on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

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