Conscious Aging: What Kind of Philanthropist am I?

My late husband Jerry and I have always been charitably inclined, individually and as a couple, well before we had much money to give. Even though upon reaching adulthood neither of us practiced the religious traditions in which we were raised, I think the initial awareness that life was about more than ourselves came from those Jewish and Catholic traditions. As kids in religious education classes, my friends and I filled small mission boxes with dimes and quarters. When the box was full, off went the proceeds to Catholic missions. There was a rather ghastly imperialist cultural overlay to it all: my mission boxes supposedly went to convert the pagan babies in China. For every $5 sent, I could name such a pagan baby — I always said “Barbara” after my dead infant sister. I profoundly hope the naming bit was marketing spin — I’d hate to think of little Chinese girls named Barbara trying to survive in a communist regime. Jerry’s religious education included the call to tzedakah, loosely translated as the obligation to heal a broken world.

As we became more financially stable we gave more. I continue to give, in both of our names, as we would have done had Jerry lived.

I’m just in the midst of a bad misunderstanding with a friend who also runs a non-profit here in Seattle — always hard to mix these things. She publicly assumed my support in the throes of a conflict with the community in a way that was deeply annoying to me, and I let her know it. In return, she wants me to be “a different kind of philanthropist.”

I’m not sure what that means, but here’s what kind of philanthropist I am: Jerry and I started with nothing much by way of assets, and through dint of very hard work over 40 years, built a business. In turn, I expect any charity I support to be as hard working, strategic, and effective as I think we were. There are lots of good causes out there, and lots of deserving people who’ve gotten a bad shake in life. I think they deserve a leg up. But the leg up has to be smart, and effective, and sustaining in the change it creates. Otherwise, no matter how good the cause or how pure the intent of those who work on it, I’m not putting anything on the table — not time, money, or expertise.

Is it hard-ass? Yes, I’m sure it is. But it’s who I am as a philanthropist. People who see only the compassionate side of me, the good listener, the empathetic advisor, but who miss the business side miss something big.

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