Philanthropy Is Not Just A Word

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Wendy Bay Lewis. Wendy is a former lawyer, fundraiser, and nonprofit executive who is working on a book of essays about the lexicon shared by civic-minded, service-oriented, and philanthropically-inclined individuals.  Her blog, which shares the title of her book, The CivicMinded Companion, is a work space for comments about the words we share and how we use them.

By Wendy Bay Lewis

Philanthropy is not just a word

Over the past several months, I have collected about 200 words, names, and phrases for a lexicon that I think knits together civic, nonprofit, and philanthropic communities. Terms include everything and everyone from Bono, the rocker fighting poverty, to Yunus, the Nobel Laureate who created micro-lending. Now that I’m in the process of drafting definitions, I realize that words like philanthropy have an emotional power that exceeds what a simple definition can convey. Two examples landed on my desktop last week.

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today ran compelling stories on November 15 about the intersection of philanthropy, higher education, and economically disadvantaged students. The WSJ profiled a “nonprofit start-up in Palo Alto” called QuestBridge and several other organizations that help low-income students attend prestigious colleges (Matching Top Colleges, Low-Income Students).

USA Today ran a front-page story on The Fund for Veterans’ Education and similar programs modeled after the GI Bill to assist Iraq-war veterans with college tuition (College-bound GIs get extra help).

In both of these articles, individual funders were an integral part of the story because they were rich and well-intentioned. The new chief executive of QwestBridge, employed without pay, is “one of the multimillionaires” who left Yahoo; the founder of The Fund for Veterans’ Education is a “billionaire financier” who made an initial gift of $4 million; and a substantial donor to veterans’ scholarships is the “son of billionaire George Soros.” The emphasis on their monetary donations seems simplistic. True, they are philanthropists. But more than that, as these stories demonstrated, they want to remedy deep educational and economic inequities that nag at their social consciences. I would call them social justice philanthropists.

WSJ reporter Jim Carlton quoted the founder of QuestBridge, physician Michael McCullough, as follows: “We hope that in 10 years we’ll have added a new generation of talented and thoughtful minds to American leadership, drawn from the lowest economic spectrum.” In addition, as the article pointed out, universities benefit from admitting QuestBridge students by “increasing the diversity of their student bodies without relying solely on race.”

Reporting for USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein quoted Jonathan Soros about why his support reaches beyond scholarship recipients: “Veterans benefit from a liberal arts education, and the community benefits by learning from people of different backgrounds and confronting realities they wouldn’t otherwise directly encounter.”

Philanthropy is not one size fits all. Phrases like “venture philanthropy” and “engaged philanthropy” have come into usage to describe strategies where donors take an active role in the organizations they fund. Perhaps “social justice philanthropist” might be used to describe donors, whether traditional or engaged, whose focus is economic, social, and environmental justice. Isn’t philanthropy a tool for social change?