The New Face of Philanthropy

Do you consider yourself a philanthropist?

When I asked my peers — Millennials in the U.S. — most of them said no.

This surprised me, because my generation is known for championing social good more than any other. We generously donate our time and skills to nonprofits. We’re conscious of where we shop and we pressure companies to do good; 91% of us would switch from the brands we currently use to buy those that support a cause. We’re even mindful with our careers; 60% of us have said our current employer’s sense of purpose is why we work there.

I followed up my question with another. I asked my peers, “What comes to mind when you hear the word philanthropy? Here’s what I most often heard.

Philanthropy clearly isn’t a word that is connecting with Millennials. Apparently, somewhere along the line, the word philanthropy lost its true meaning. In the Greek origin of the word, philanthropy literally means “the love of humanity.”

It sounds to me like it’s time to reexamine what it means to be a philanthropist, and who gets to call themselves one. This is an opportunity to make philanthropy more diverse, more inclusive, more inviting than it’s ever been. In order to do that, we need to challenge the biggest misconceptions: 1) That it takes a lot of money to be a philanthropist and 2) That it takes any money at all.

I have a stake in all this because philanthropy happens to be my career; but you have a stake in it too, because look around at the world you live in. I’m guessing you’re not any more satisfied with the news headlines you’re reading than I am. Stories of terrorism, fear, violence, racism, misogyny are everywhere.

Seven years ago, I was disturbed by the stories I was reading about how many girls were not enrolled in secondary school around the world. To be more precise, 50 million girls — a much larger proportion than of the boys. This didn’t make any sense to me, because data shows societies with more educated women have less violence, less disease, less poverty, and less extremism.

So my passion became ensuring that all girls around the world have access to quality education, and that they make it to high school graduation, just like I did. I know the power of being a first-generation graduate. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. In 2009, I created a social media campaign called She’s the First, and it quickly grew into a nonprofit organization. She’s the First provides scholarships to more than 800 girls in low-income countries who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school. When they succeed, they are in a position to break the cycle of poverty and pay it forward.

Honestly, when I started out doing this work, philanthropy was a word I shied away from too. But over time, I’ve come to own it. If you fit the definition of a philanthropist, by showing love for humanity, then why not put yourself in the company of Bill & Melinda Gates or Oprah? We need to use the word philanthropist to unify people, not exclude them.

I believe that if we begin to recognize young people as the major philanthropists they are, more would identify as such and rise to the challenge. Self perceptions become reality. We need the next generation go beyond the band-aid solutions. Being a philanthropist means thinking about long-term, systemic solutions.

So here are three examples of young people who are redefining philanthropy. Let’s start with the youth who are turning pocket change into actual change in people’s lives.

And here’s how they do it:

With some eggs. Bit of water. Vegetable oil. Baking mix. Some drops of food coloring. And, the most important ingredient of all: passion.

The passion of students and young professionals who want to make a difference. This is our #BakeAChange campaign, tie-dye cupcake bake sales that happen all over the US, and beyond, raising money to send girls to school.

Photo by Kate Lord

The colorful “tie-dye” recipe has become our signature — because it’s eye-catching, it stops people in their tracks, and it creates conversations.

During the two-week time frame of the campaign, I’ve seen students raise nearly $50,000 together. 100% of that goes directly into She’s the First Scholarships.

STF Scholars in Sierra Leone; photo by Kate Lord

Those scholarships enable girls who wouldn’t be able to afford it to go to school. It pays for tuition, uniforms, and books. And our scholarships do even more: They keep her in school by providing her a support network — that means tutoring, a mentorship group, extracurricular activities. This is going to create long-term change because when a girl graduates from school, everything changes. She is able to earn a higher income to support herself. She practices better health and hygiene, which delays childbirth and prevents contagious disease. She stands up for herself and makes her own decisions, making her far less likely to be a victim of domestic violence or forced into an arranged marriage.

Now that I’ve told you about one of the ways we raise money, I want to go back to those original questions I asked. Remember how the Millennials I surveyed associated these words with philanthropy? Well, I was curious what the girls we give scholarships to would think… they after all, are Millennials too, just living in lower income countries. When I asked a handful of She’s the First Scholars what they associated with philanthropy, here’s what THEY said.

Fascinating, right? Their perception was spot-on to the original meaning. I asked Elly, who is 24 and from Arusha, Tanzania, whether she considered herself a philanthropist. Without hesitation, she said “Yes. Everyone can be Bill Gates in her own way.

Elly; photo by Kate Lord

Two years ago, Elly became the first in her family to finish high school — even though she is the youngest of nine children. Now she’s in college. Elly is indeed just as much of a philanthropist as the person who funded her scholarship.

Elly realizes that even with a degree, the job market is tough in Tanzania. She’s trying to prevent unemployment problems before they even happen. One way of doing this is to learn a skill to become an entrepreneur. Batik making, for instance, is a skill of dying cloth, to make clothing, tapestries, bags — products that sell well in the markets of Arusha, Tanzania, where many tourists shop. Elly knows some men who have a successful batik-making business, so she invited them to campus and organized workshops for her classmates to attend and learn how they do it.

Elly wants to see women be financially independent and she’s creating opportunities to inspire that. That’s showing love of humanity. That’s philanthropy.

Here’s another example from India. Imagine that you are a teenage girl from the dalit caste — the poorest, least educated class in Indian society. You are not in school and you’re already a mother. Now imagine that one of your children has a birth defect. Your life is even harder. You are blamed for the baby’s problem. You’re said to have evil spirits inside you. You’re beaten by your husband, and shunned by your family. And you’re just a teenage girl.

Maheshwari, who is 22 and the first in her family to graduate high school, saw this happen in her village. Fortunately she was not one of those teenagers. She had a scholarship to attend boarding school and in studying science, she knew these defects are not the woman’s fault. They are caused by genetic problems. She also learned many of those birth defects are preventable. So when Maheshwari went on to college what did she choose to study? Genetics. Mahesh has overcome every obstacle along the way to get her master’s degree next year. Through her research and health advocacy work, she will help the poor understand genetic risks. She’ll stop then from blaming women. If that isn’t love of humanity, I don’t know what is. Maheshwari is a philanthropist.

Maheshwari; photo by Kate Lord

Maheshwari and Elly are just two examples of many that show us that philanthropy is a two-way street. There is no contradiction between being a beneficiary of philanthropy and being a philanthropist yourself.

Philanthropy is not reserved for the wealthy, or for those from the wealthiest countries. In order for philanthropy to be truly game-changing in the long run, we need to widen the playing field so more can participate. We need to recognize that we are all peers, regardless of what the balance in our bank account may be. Philanthropy has no geographic boundaries, no minimum income level — it’s love of humanity. Period.

I ask for your help in spreading this idea throughout the world, because I believe that if more of us identified as a philanthropist, versus feeling excluded from philanthropy, then we’d see more progress in bettering our world.

So, next time you hear the word philanthropy, I hope you think of your teenager who has had a bake sale with her friends. I hope you see the girl that you can provide a scholarship to halfway around the world. I hope you see yourself. Because the face of philanthropy is you.

This is a transcript of the TEDxBerlin talk I gave on September 5, 2016.