Philanthropy comes out of a need, a necessity. My life experiences and sense of morality are in many ways rooted in the willingness for some to give: interconnectedness. I believe that we are all interconnected in more ways than one, but one of the few intangible and tangible ties we have to one another is our ability to be invested in one another’s happiness. Happiness comes in many forms: physical, spiritual, familial, romantic, etc. However, in some way or another, I argue, our own happiness depended on the energy of someone else. In a cyclical way, to be fully invested in our own happiness, is to be fully invested in the happiness of others.
So for me, I grew up being taught to be invested in my community’s happiness because it was directed tied to mine. From a pure resource perspective, growing up poor meant that you were always one step from disaster and so, out of necessity one needed to establish a community to ensure that in case of a debilitating circumstance – a broken car, an unexpected expense, or a medical bill – you had created a network of support for yourself to ensure that you and your family’s ability to recover was possible albeit incredibly difficult. Being black in the United States means being a part of a community that has for centuries fought to establish autonomy and freedom, despite systemic, institutional, and interpersonal oppression. This reality has created a deep rooted connection unified in spirit, language and history. Molding me in the beauty and power of ‘we: a prescribed unity founded in struggle’, forcing me to think ‘us’: individually I exist as a living representation of a kinship of black skin, and labeling me as ‘them’ because my body is the screen on which others project their fantasies, their fears, their insecurities, I am Black in America.
Unified in my experiences blackness, an interconnected struggled, philanthropy, in my definition, is committing to each other. This investment does not necessarily need to be founded in having an excess because poor communities practice philanthropy every day. However, my personal belief is that philanthropy is our responsibility if we are to truly be invested in one another. We must not only be philanthropic with our earnings, but with our time, our resources, our connections, our compassion, our mercy and most of all our love.
During my time with the Development Summer Internship Program, I have, in community, been invested in exploring, deconstructing, challenging, and cultivating my knowledge and experiences with philanthropy. This program has given my cohort and I the opportunity to study the literature and research, interact and engage with philanthropy professionals and donors, and be critical of the profession and the acts and see how they fit into our personal, professional and philanthropic goals. My perception of philanthropy, just like anything else in my young adult, pre-professional career, is constantly shifting and morphing. I have always been critical of philanthropy because of its popular image. This philanthropy is rooted in elitist, classist ideologies. I am critical of philanthropy because of the overall lack of critique to how these, often times, extremely wealthy donors accumulate such drastic amounts of money in a capitalist, racist, heteronormative patriarchal, ableist society, but I suppose occasionally the tea is just too hot.
The fact that when you look at the history of our country which was founded on the exploitation, enslavement, and genocide of so many oppressed communities, specifically communities of color and the selective and discriminatory laws, policies, statutes, founding doctrines, and overt and covert acts of discrimination which severely limited those who were not cis, male, white, able-bodied, straight, or practiced judeo-christian beliefs, from accessing the tools to acquire wealth, one really starts to question the role of philanthropy in a broken system. Are we developing structures, practices that reassert the validity and power of the wealthy? “Centering” them above everything else? If so, what roles does empowerment play in philanthropy? Philanthropy must be transformative, it must be diverse, and accessible. Philanthropy must challenge, and it must recognize. Most of all, philanthropy cannot be complacent, but must be self-critical. There seems to be a disillusioned purity that is associated with philanthropic work, as if philanthropy can do no wrong because: “we’re connecting donors’ passions with the University’s needs.” Passion left unchecked can be destructive (read: white savior complex). And so I feel as though my cohort and I’s questions have burned the tongues of many philanthropy professionals, but for many it seems as though, it is not an unwillingness to engage in these conversations, but a need for more of them.
Philanthropy just like many sectors of the professional world must continue to think of strategic ways to incorporate ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion into not merely its mission, but into its practice, especially when the goals of philanthropy, specifically at Michigan, relies on interacting and engaging with those who hold immense amount of privilege. The conversation needs to shift to focus less on how far we have come and more on how far we have to go. As these conversation increasingly become more commonplace, there has been a shift in generational giving trends. As younger donors become more invested in issues of equity, inclusion, diversity, and empowerment, so must the philanthropic organizations hoping to connect to them. As the University continues to value a critical and inquirous environment, one of resistance, institutional critiques, and historic reflection, the development world must embrace these values.
Being in this program has shown me the heartfelt passion of those who are involved in philanthropy from major gift officers to donors. We have been able to see their dedication, their convictions, their contradictions, and their struggles. We have seen the joy that giving brings. Perhaps, most importantly, this internship program has given us the ability, both critically and compassionately to see the humanity in this work. By recognizing the humanity in philanthropy, it has positioned me to critique, while recognizing its value and its connection to the responsibility of investment in one another’s happiness. These connections will allow me to carry the values of philanthropic giving, investment and motivation into my professional endeavors whatever they may be.
Philanthropy has taught me my investment in others requires action. Philanthropy has shown me the powerful outcomes that can be achieved when we realize our capacity to love and invest in one another’s happiness. It has shown me the impact of a gift to transform one’s life. However, philanthropy must be self-critical. The community of philanthropy must reflect on the role in which philanthropy plays as a ‘redistribution of wealth.’ Does it manipulate a pre-existing unequal distribution of wealth? No. It creates inquiry within donors, professionals, and recipients alike. It reminds itself that as a community it is responsible for the impact, both positive and negative, that its actions may have. Philanthropy must be empowering to recipient communities, by establishing an autonomy and power in the conversation. As a scholarship recipient, I have felt, firsthand, the impact of this investment, however my responsibility is not to passively receive, but to actively encourage and reflect.
As philanthropy professionals, we are positioned at a unique and powerful place between the rifts created by the deep rooted, historic divisions of power and privilege in this country. In many ways, the profession relies on learning how to navigate, recognize and cultivate this crux, but we have a choice: we can either dwell in this privilege; wrapping ourselves in the passion of our work, losing all sense of collective responsibility and accountability, and dismissing the exploitative implications our position requires of us. We can cease to ask the hard questions, simplify the complex answers, choosing to see only the fruits of our labor or we can continue to ask ourselves: What’s missing? How can we be more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive? How can we empower everyone? What responsibility do we have to our recipients? Our donors? Our community? Our society? Ourselves? We must readily understand and accept the larger implications of our work, and strive to transform the field. Philanthropy is a manifestation of our necessity to invest in one another’s humanity, but this is only possible if we are able to recognize why: because our happiness is directly connected to everyone have the opportunity to pursue it.