Sunday, June 12, 2011

Where Philanthropy Begins and Ends

“Charity begins at home” is often interpreted, somewhat literally, to mean that the first order of altruism is to take care of those closest to us. If we wanted to reveal more of its meaning by re-stating it as a sterner injunction, it might be “Don’t do for others what you have not done for your own.” In that light, we can see that charity that did not begin at home would be hypocritical – and hypocrisy not only connotes a breach between word and deed, or belief and behavior, but the doing of things for self-serving appearance rather than selfless service.

While I agree with these primary interpretations of that famous proverb, I would hope our reflections wouldn’t stop there. There are layers of rich meaning within it that are worthy of exploration and mining. For example, it can also mean that the example and inspiration of charity begins at home, that a charitable home is the fount of a virtuous cycle, that the progeny of such loving homes carry the example forward and express it throughout their lives. It also means that the intention of charity should begin at home, that if we do not believe it is more blessed to give than to receive, and live out that belief, we are not worthy recipients of the generosity of others. If we ask for charity or philanthropy, we must provide something of commensurate societal value in return. The more we ask, the more we must return. It means that we cannot take more than we give or ask of others more than we have given or are prepared to give. Therein lies an essential ethical compact, the basis of every sound relationship and the foundation of any well-functioning community, society or civilization. It is a compact that was deeply comprehended by the greatest of our founders and the most impressive perpetuators of the American ideal. It is at heart of the American philanthropy, a revolution that has brought about the greatest voluntary transfer of wealth in human history.

Philanthropy is charity’s far-seeing cousin. It, too, begins at home. Philanthropy-seeking organizations, as the very first order of business, must establish creeds and back them up with deeds that demonstrate a love of, and service to humanity, in part or whole. They cannot, by virtue of the creed alone, feel entitled to philanthropy of others. They cannot expect to receive what they have not given or are prepared to give.

So this is my concern: In too many instances, fund raising has become detached from institutional intent and institutional commitment. Too many institutions have fallen into the habit of asking more without defining who will be better served – or how and when – if more is given. They have rested their claims on noble-sounding causes or high-toned but self-important purposes like “excellence” without holding themselves to explicit performance standards or precise “services to be rendered” in return for the support they so fervently seek. “Excellence” is defined as the act, condition or quality of being “eminently good.” For philanthropy-seeking organizations, the question is not what they aspire to be good at but in service to whom.

“Fund raising” and “philanthropy” are not synonyms, though they are often used as such. Even though fund raising owes its existence to, and is animated and actuated by philanthropy, we can see the self-serving cooption of the former in the name of the latter. Short-sighted fund raising seeks to have institutional purposes served while institutions (or organizations or causes) practicing true philanthropy work to define shared purpose with those who have and might support it so that “we the people” can work toward a more perfect union and strive, in ever more tangible ways, to make real our pledge of “liberty and justice for all.”

I believe those that practice true philanthropy, the kind that begins at home, will attract the best leaders, the most dedicated workers, the most conscientious and accomplished fund raisers and, unsurprisingly enough, the most astonishingly generous donors. Those that do not, that seek to raise fund for their own purposes and aggrandizement will deprive philanthropy of its deeper meaning and higher purpose. The former is not more idealistic than the latter; it is far more practical, attainable and sustainable proposition.