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Posts Tagged ‘philanthropy’

Because I am a creature of habit, I see them around 5:30 nearly every morning as I make my way to the gym. They are both smallish, probably in their mid-60s. And even though it’s still pretty dark that early, I can see that they resemble one another in the way that long-married couples often do — both seem to have pretty much the same haircut, the same glasses, and even the same slightly stooped posture and cramped gait. Thankfully, they are wearing matching reflective vests — the kind normally sported by highway workers — so the handful of us who are out this early have no trouble spotting them from a pretty good ways away. It’s clear they are walking for exercise, though not just exercise, for as they make their way along the street, they stoop to pick up empty water bottles or hot dog boxes or stray plastic bags, anything that’s accumulated along the curb since the previous morning. And this morning when I see them, I think of Bill Gates.

It’s a stretch, I know. Though he may do so, I find it hard to imagine that Bill Gates spends much time in a reflective vest picking up trash. In fact years ago, I read an funny piece in Harper’s by Brad Templeton that calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the software titan’s time to even stop to pick up a $1000 bill (that number has long since increased, I’m sure). But Bill Gates, along with Warren Buffet and a few dozen other billionaires, have just pledged to do something very interesting — give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes through an initiative called The Giving Pledge.

It’s an admirable gesture, I think, one that has the power to make a significant impact in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s a risk here, too. By hearkening back to the days of the billionaire philanthropists of old — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — we may find it easier to imagine that giving back is the obligation of only that rarefied class. The gesture they are making is so far beyond the capacity, even the imagination, of most of us that it can, if viewed from a certain perspective, seem utterly foreign.

I have the good fortune to work in a trade in which I continually see evidence of giving in action. I routinely meet and write about those who have given thousands, tens of thousands, even millions to a cause they deem worthy, and I get to see firsthand how transformational their generosity can be. Students who might not otherwise have had a chance to earn a degree graduate and join the workforce. Research discoveries that may have remained hidden are brought forth, carrying with them the potential to change our world. Scholars who have much to offer and little time to articulate it find the intellectual breathing room to help us understand more about who we are.

Yet when I think of this couple scuttling along in the predawn light reflecting back my headlights, I’m thinking that they, too, are giving back. They are making a small, silent, almost unseen gesture that edifies their community and, by extension, them. They are acting on an impulse that exists in all of us, no matter how hard we may seek ways to stifle it, and that is the impulse to give something back. Time. Talent. Treasure. It doesn’t matter.

I’m glad to see the list of billionaires who have taken the pledge to give back, just as I’m glad to see the quiet gestures of the remarkably ordinary folks who take the time to enrich something besides themselves. For both remind me of the richness of our lives, and our deep-seated and abiding obligation to share some of that richness.

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It was just a sandwich. Nothing special, really. Roast beef, havarti, chive mayonnaise, and a few limp leaves of romaine on a white roll. So, in terms of helping the homeless, I suppose it wasn’t much. But it was something my daughter felt strongly about doing, so we did it. We tried anyway.

I should say up front that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless problem. Or if it does, it’s pretty invisible. There used to be a couple of men that you’d see pretty regularly — at the library, shuffling past downtown storefronts, sitting on benches at odd hours. When one of them died not long ago, it was a news item. Turns out he had a wife, a daughter, and even a home. The narrative couldn’t account for why he turned away from all those comforts to live on the streets. Now that he’s passed, there’s only one man that we see with any regularity, and it was the sight of him sitting alone inside a local mall last evening, wrapped in tattered blankets and surrounded by a couple of bulging canvas bags, that triggered my daughter’s desire to help.

We’d passed him on the way out of the gym, but she didn’t say anything until a few minutes later while we were at the grocery store stocking up of a holiday party we’re planning.

“I feel really sorry for him,” she says as we browse the cheese case.

“Who?” I ask.

“That man at the mall. The homeless one.”

“Yeah, it’s sad.”

“Would it be okay if we bought some dinner for him? A sandwich or something?”

A simple question, really. And an honorable impulse. But still …

“I don’t know, honey…” My voice trails off here, and I busy myself looking over the party platters of perfectly cubed cheese and artfully rolled salami.

The shameful truth is that this simple suggestion, this single desire to help in some small way, brings me face to face with my own carefully cultivated attitude, an attitude that allows me to see this same man nearly every day and do nothing. It’s not indifference, and it’s not a lack of compassion. It’s that peculiar capacity we all have developed to see need and turn away, to prevent that need from registering in a way that would spur us to immediate action.

Of course none of this occurs to me at the grocery store. What I do there is wrap my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and walk with over to the deli where we pick out the roast beef sub. We pay for it along with the rest of the groceries and walk the half-block through the bitter cold back down to the mall.

She wants me to give it to him, so I take the sack from her hands. He sees me coming and begins waving me off and muttering. I approach, but a bit more slowly.

“It’s just a sandwich,” I say, extending the sack forward, like a peace offering.

With one hand, he clutches his blanket closer around his neck, and with the other, pulls one of his canvas sacks closer. His voice is deep and gruff, and loud enough for my daughter, standing back a few feet, to hear.

“Go away.”

Maybe I should have left it there. Maybe I should have insisted that he take it. Maybe I should have asked him if he needing anything else. I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I wish him a merry Christmas and turn away.

I saw him again this morning at 5:00 as I got to the gym, hurrying through the parking lot with his odd rolling gait, heading for the warmth of the mall. I didn’t say anything to him, and I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

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Okay, I’m in. And apparently I’m a bit late to the party. I just read an article on CNN that said that in the last year — that’s February 2008 to February 2009 — the number of Twitter users jumped from 475,000 to — are you ready for this? — seven MILLION. That’s an increase of 1374 percent, according to their math. That’s a whole lot of tweeting going on.

And, if you are in the business of creating and spreading messages, a network with seven million users gets your attention.

So I’m in, but I’m not in because I’ve figured how I’m going to make it work for me.  Frankly, I’m not convinced that anyone has quite figured out exactly how it should work.

Yes, I know the success stories. The celebs with thousands of followers, the web 2.0 thought leaders who wax eloquent in 140 characters, the guy who broke the news to the world that a plane had gone down in the Hudson from his iPhone and Twitter account.

But I’m not a celeb, nor much of a thought leader. And my communications  have little to do with breaking news. They are communications that require context and demand depth, and whatever Twitter’s strengths may be, I hope we can all agree that these capabilities aren’t among them.

Still, I’m intrigued by the thought of discovering more, of learning how this techno-tsunami will change the way I must work. Can I use it to build audiences and strengthen communities? Can an organization establish and hold these audiences in the same way an individual can — all while using 140 characters at a time? Or does its chief value for me lie in its ability to carry a link out to all who are following my feed, a link that will pull folks into a longer form story on the web, a story that has the context, the depth, and the call to action that I need?

Frankly, I don’t know a thing about the future of Twitter. As the CNN article posits, perhaps there’s a backlash brewing. That wouldn’t be too surprising, would it? Usually if something grows that much that fast, there’s always a bit of a backlash. (Can anyone say Crocs?)

I suppose that’s because what makes such a thing gain traction — its coolness, hipness, and web-geeky kind of cred– is horribly diminished when when guys like me get a hold of it. (Just today, I had to resist the impulse to tweet something like “It must be really spring. I just saw a bluebird.”)

I may be late to the party, but at least it’s still a party — for now. Maybe I’ll see  you there.  If not, I’ll tweet and let you know how it is.

How are you using Twitter personally? What about professionally? What do you see as its chief strength? Is it working for you? Share your thoughts in the comments (and use as many characters as you want.)

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Hey, brother, can you spare a dime? Or a dollar? How about $10,000? Can you imagine the audacity of asking for money in this kind of economic climate? What kind of person would do that?

Well, a pretty normal person, as it turns out.

Just to be clear — I work for a BIG organization that raises money. BIG money, in fact. So while the money coming in will definitely slow down, we’ll probably keep the lights on. I’m adjusting our messages a bit to be more sensitive to the context of the times, but by and large, my job won’t change. I stay busy defining what gets said, not saying it. And that keeps me a little insulated from the cold reality of a deepening recession.

I had lunch yesterday with a bunch of folks who don’t have that luxury. They are front-line fundraisers.  Many of them bear the sole responsibility for raising money for their organizations, and many of those organizations depend on charitable giving for operating budgets — the money that keeps the lights burning, that keeps the doors open, that keeps the much-needed services coming. And, no surprise, the people who are responsible for finding and securing those gifts are having a much harder time of it.

Here’s the irony: the forces that are causing so many donors to keep a tighter grasp on their purse strings are the same forces that are increasing the need for the crucial services many of these fundraisers make possible. I’m talking Red Cross, children’s health programs, job training, and more. And these folks — the normal hardworking folks I had lunch with today — are forced to work within this double bind — increased need and diminishing resources.

I’ll be blunt. I’m convinced that now, perhaps more than any other time in my lifetime, philanthropy matters. And not just the sort that makes the headlines. Not just the philanthropy that names buildings or creates endowments. It’s the philanthropy that happens when you realize that it’s not just something you do when you think you’re able. It’s something you do because you realize that you are pretty much always able.

That’s the sort of deeper obligation to one another — to strangers, even — that we’re often too busy to feel, let alone honor. And that’s the sort of obligation that lifts us all — both those who have and those who don’t. And that’s the sort of obligation that my lunch mates are hoping folks will feel, and feel soon.

Think about those who would benefit from  a gift from you — those at your alma mater, or your local food pantry, or a women’s shelter, or a job training program or a … there’s no end of possibilities.

So how about it, brother (or sister)? Can you spare a dime?

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