Photo courtesy of @tdavidson

Is philanthropist a dirty word?

A look at philanthropy through a modern lens.

I’m a lifelong philanthropist. There I said it. But you won’t find me on any list. Certainly not the Forbes List of 50 Philanthropists Who Have Given Away The Most Money. I’m not on the red carpet at galas. I don’t have my name in a lot of annual reports. I don’t have my names on buildings (or on the bricks outside those buildings). However I’m passionate about giving and have a philanthropic giving and volunteer strategy about where and how I give and update it every year. Still, I’m not in a position to donate millions. It’s not in my wheelhouse.

So why do I feel just a little bit strange to call myself a philanthropist?

Maybe it’s because of the media. Maybe it’s the nonprofits themselves. Maybe it’s the way philanthropists are portrayed giving away millions and living glamorous lifestyles. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve had debates for years about why the simple word “philanthropy” leaves so many of us wanting and wishing for a better word to use. What philanthropy entails, what baggage comes with it and how to change the misconceived perceptions about what it really means.

Words matter. Beyond the Merriam Webster “official” definition, words come with baggage and are weighted with experience. Officially, philanthropy is simple:

1 : a spirit of goodwill toward all people especially when expressed in active and generous efforts to help others
2 : a charitable act or gift
3 : an organization which distributes or is supported by charitable contributions

Unofficially it gets complicated. Which of the following gifts would a nonprofit consider to come from a philanthropist?

$1,000,000 gift from 1 person

$200 from 5,000 people

$10 from 100,000 people

The first one right? My question is not do they think of these gifts differently but should they?

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. If we want to change how we’re categorized and how we’re portrayed, that has to come from us. After all, if we go back to the definition then our focus should be about the act of being generous and helping others, not the amount.

With that definition we can all be philanthropists.

If we want to redefine how we think about a word or an action, it’s up to us. There are other words we proudly take on like donor, volunteer, change maker, global citizen and activist. But can we also adopt the moniker philanthropist? Why not?

Philanthropists don’t have to be only old white men giving away their billions. That’s not the only face of philanthropy I want to see and I know it’s not the only kind that exists in our society. It’s not about the who or the when. It’s about the what. It’s about the small actions we choose to take every day.

It’s about today.

(Side note: If you’re a billionaire reading this, please keep giving! If you need suggestions on nonprofits, let me know!)

I don’t want to be a philanthropist for the fame. If I had billions I would certainly be first in line to give it away and someone would probably write about it. That’s ok. We all need something to read and inspire us and make us feel good.

All of our lives would be a lot richer (emotionally and spiritually) if we had more readily accessible stories about what we do to give back. I’d like to see more stories about how everyday people have built giving into their lives and how they are redefining philanthropy to fit into today’s world. Think of how inspiring that would be.

Don’t be intimidated by a word. Take it and make it yours. Philanthropy is about goodwill which is much more than just bells and whistles. You can be a philanthropist if you want to, no one is holding you back.


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