Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.

After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.


Chop Wood, Carry Water

Philanthropy, like Zen enlightenment is a destiny, not a destination.

I am an aficionado of altruism- a cheerleader for humanity, if you will. I love innovation. I love progress, discovery, and seeing the impossible become possible. I love the Olympics- the best that humanity has to offer in sport gathering together in the spirit of competition to display our collective greatness. I love it when projects are crowdfunded beyond expectations. I swell with pride when people succeed beyond their perceived limitations; when a person learns to recognize his or her own greatness. I am such a cheerleader for us, the human race. It’s no accident the work I do is in the humanitarian domain. I am hard-wired for it.

To be quite candid, there’s not much else outside philanthropy that I could do successfully. My heart and mind work as one; even so, I am not an artist. I cannot sing or dance. I’m not an engineer or programmer. Hell, I’m not even a great writer. I do have an insatiable appetite for information, though, and desire to share knowledge. I have a deep, visceral need to learn about the world and understand how it works. I can organize and disseminate data en masse. Yet, I’m no expert in any one field. I studied international business and economics, dabbled in finance, comparative religion, anthropology, and later, tax law and public policy. I have garnered all the vocational ingredients for a steaming hot mess of aimlessness, accentuated with more than a little innate cheekiness and charm.

Now, what?

Determined to find my niche, I set upon the path of self-discovery. I took every aptitude test, evaluation, personality quiz- IQ, EQ, GQ- whatever I could find. I attended seminars. I read Cosmo’s Bedside Astrologer. I consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook regularly, secretly hoping that some new field or industry would pop up, necessitating my unique training and skill set.

Alas, no.

Scouring the BLS was an exercise in futility. My foray into nonprofit management and philanthropic consulting was completely unplanned, but as it turned out, I had a penchant for it. Growing up, however, I wasn’t particularly interested in the inner-workings of philanthropy. Our family rarely discussed it.

Like most people, our charitable contributions followed a path of least resistance. We gave, and then got on with our lives.

I first learned about charity as a child: my mother tithed to the church and my father would make recurring donations, which were usually the price of admittance to some gala or social function. We gave to those less fortunate during the holidays. We all volunteered in our community, although this, too, was usually in the context of some social function.

Ours is a family tree of devoutly American transplants from generations rooted (with but few anomalies) in just two countries, England and France. Mother was a true southern belle of French decent, high on society and not at all short on propriety. Father was a gregarious impresario, fabulously capitalistic and whole-heartedly enamored with the American dream, not unlike like his ancestors, who were among England’s first defectors.

Our family stems from a long line of autocrats and socialites, burgeoning from some of the noblest families in world history. So, while not in the company of America’s industrialists/philanthropists like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, or the Morgans, our families’ charitable endeavors were ingrained centuries over as the noblesse oblige.

Our own American history is such that Mum’s side was from cotton and sugar cane, and Dad’s heralded from automobiles and lumber. Satisfactorily well-to-do by all accounts, both sides also made a killing during prohibition. My grandfather used to joke that we were fortunate because our family knew “how to chop wood and carry water.” By this, of course, he meant transport timber and move bootleg spirits, mostly along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Profitable? You betcha. Opportunistic? Absolutely. Zen Enlightened? Not so much.

As fate would have it, the glamour and appeal of the Golden Age held far too much allure. Bootlegging had simultaneously doubled the family dowry and begat its demise. In just two generations, our family experienced a complete reversal of fortune. Saving face in social circles took top priority, and further amassed a mountain of debt. My family, amidst the downfall, continued to live well beyond their means. This was their undoing. Stocks and bonds were liquidated and family trusts depleted. Plantations and summer homes were auctioned off to pay outstanding (and gambling) debts. Companies were sold for pennies on the dollar. By the time I was shuffled off to private school, alcoholism was rampant on both sides of the family, and compulsive gambling became the sure-fire way to “win it all back.” I may have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but by the time I was a teenager, my fairytale-in-waiting had become little more than a malnourished dream.

This “fall of the house” was my first real life lesson. Money is a tool, nothing more. Some build things with it, some use it to tear things down. The more tools you have at your disposal, though, the more quickly the process moves along, for better or worse. My family was no exception to that rule. In fact, they’d emulated it with great precision.

My only hope, or so we all thought whilst discussing my enrollment into finishing school, was to marry well. It was either that or I acquire some tools and learn to build something, which is unheard of for a pre-ordained maiden of leisure. As I grew older and more independent (coupled with a healthy dose of teenage angst), “marrying well” seemed more like a life-sentence than a lifesaver. When all is lost and the family’s last debutante is your only asset- your only hope of rising from the ashes- you have officially reached a point of no return. The continuation of your family tree is superfluous. Extinction is imminent. Congratulations.

In nature, when infirmity engulfs an entire tree, the best thing to do is either prune it back severely or cut it down. The very foundation of our familial house was falling amidst its disease-ridden self-destruction; the family tree was well beyond pruning. Our family tree was contaminated. The tree needed to be cut down and I opted to wield the axe, much to my family’s champagne-soaked chagrin. Thus, with one decision, a seed had been planted. After all, I come from a long line of bluebloods who knew how to chop wood and carry water. Armed with an idea, determination slowly began to take root. As it turned out, though, mine was a pretty great stock to inherit, and hold onto.

There are no accidents.

My first real exposure to the inner workings of philanthropy came during college. I used to meet with the visiting professors of my Mandarin Chinese course on a regular basis in one of the tutoring centers on campus. The center was a federally funded program, and their grant application for renewal was fast approaching. It was a four-year competitive grant award worth a couple million dollars. Educational support services were at stake. Jobs were at stake. I knew the staff quite well and would hear them discussing strategies and program tweaks. I was intrigued. I started paying attention.

Since high school, I’d worked with the corporate division of a national tax preparation company, and loved pouring over tax code to discover new insights. That’s right, I enjoyed reading Internal Revenue Code. I read IRC publications like most people read the Sunday paper. So, when I heard the program staff trying to infer the meaning of U.S. Department of Education’s Codes of Federal Regulation, I perked up. I offered to help, since I knew the language. Ironically, I spent three years in secondary school studying Latin, the language no one speaks. I devoted two semesters in college to rigorously practicing my pinyin and calligraphy to learn Mandarin, which I now only use to translate take-out menus. Over the years, I’ve learned conversational French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Urdu- just enough to exchange pleasnatries, order from a menu or find a toilet. But with regard to federal rule and tax law, this felt entirely different. I already possessed a rare and otherwise useless gift: I could translate code.

It was a 100-page grant application, which I took home over fall break. I completely rewrote the grant they’d submitted during the last funding cycle. I redesigned program objectives, tweaked the timeline and deliverables, added formative and summative evaluation systems, and then tied it all together with some sexy statistical impacts. The Cliff’s Notes version of this story is that they submitted the grant that I wrote with very few changes. Not only did ED award them another four-year grant, but the grant application was also recognized as being among the best in the nation. The Fed funded an additional year.

If you’ve ever written a federal grant, or even just a foundation grant, then you know how rare it is for a grantee to receive even more money than initially requested. Jobs were saved. Programs were strengthened and students were assured supportive services alongside their pursuit of higher education. Once this happens, people quickly get wind of it. Politicians show up (giant cardboard checks make great photo ops), and word spreads like wildfire. It was fast and frenzied. On campus, the home fires would keep burning for at least another five years. Although I only set out to help gather the wood, I was largely responsible for starting the blaze.

Hindsight is 20/20. Foresight is 50/50.

My Molotov cocktail of familial undoing and professional ambivalence was a perfect fit for humanitarian pursuits. My destiny was not to restore the family house and all its wealth. My destiny was not to become a trophy wife and live out my days as a woman of leisure. I was a firestarter. I was a rainmaker, too. I had discovered a trade. I had acquired some tools. Now, I just needed to figure out how to build something. In some ways, perhaps it was an arranged marriage of sorts, every loss and every perceived shortcoming was preparing me for an even greater partnership.

Philanthropy and I have been together a long time. We met by accident, and a love affair ensued. A happy accident by any name is just another way to describe a discovery of purpose. Philanthropy and I have become ever more in tune over the years, like an old married couple. The truth is I didn’t just stumble into philanthropy. There were no probabilities or odds defied here. My life in all its havoc wasn’t merely a consequence of some grand universal scheme or cosmic force as I moved from point A to point B. It was a process. Life is the journey, not the destination.

It was some time later that I realized how valuable this lesson was, and how naive I was in recognizing a turning point. When I decided that I wasn’t going to accept another’s plan for my life, that I wasn’t going spend a lifetime- my lifetime- being held accountable for the misgivings of my ancestors, that’s when everything changed. I had planted a seed. I was manifesting my own destiny. I knew it then. Now, I understand it.

I’ve reduced the debate between fate and free will to a simple maxim. Fate is a design construct, similar to an “autopilot” function; it is what happens when you acquiesce. However, when you call the shots in life, when you exert free will, the universe conspires in your favor.

That is philanthropy in a nutshell. Problems exist because change exists. But we can choose to do something about it. We can choose to engage. I have been fortunate enough to witness the sheer power that we as a collective force can have when we take on an issue. And how palpable an emotion gratitude is when another human being experiences the force of our collective goodness. The moment when someone thinks he or she is alone in the world, and humanity comes quickly to the rescue- that’s when the defining line between giver and receiver blurs. That is the moment when you’ve experienced Zen enlightenment.

We are all in this together. As Buddha so elegantly put it, “When the student is ready, the master appears.” That is how destiny works, though. We rarely see it coming. Give back or pay it forward- it makes no difference. We are all the benefactors and beneficiaries of our own design. So, when destiny shows up on your doorstep, as it often does throughout the course of a lifetime, whether you’re called for giving or receiving, keep calm and carry on.

Chop wood, carry water.

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