In the Spring of 2014, a 9 year old boy named Hector from Texas heard about a local fire that took the lives of a young mother and her daughter. When he was told that some people didn’t have smoke alarms installed in their homes, and that this simple solution could have saved their lives, he decided to act. He used the $300 he’d saved to purchase a PlayStation 4 and bought 100 smoke detectors for people in his community, which the local fire department installed. He was quoted as saying, “I decided saving a life was more important.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
We are living through a momentous time in history, and we are being bombarded with immediate and imminent threats on both personal and societal levels. As individuals, we are being called to decide what is more important, the lives of others or our immediate wants and needs. The daily headlines are forcing us to dig deeply into our desire for a better future and contemplate what it means to be kind and inclusive and equitable. Many of us are wading out beyond our comfort zones and exploring how to be more engaged, more informed and more focused. This work is challenging because it’s essential. When you decide, as Hector did, that life is more important than anything else, you begin to see a path forward. This journey involves self-exploration, a curious skepticism and empathy. This is the path of the philanthropist.
The root of philanthropy is the Greek word philanthropia, which means simply, to love people. The dictionary defines a philanthropist as a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others. The amount of money you have, or give, does not determine your ability to be a philanthropist. In fact, my preferred definition comes from local philanthropist Nancy Nordhoff, who said: “I am not convinced that being a philanthropist is determined by the amount of money given, but by a generous heart giving as much as possible”. Nancy’s definition of a generous heart giving as much as possible allows growth, flexibility and learning. A generous heart is a muscle that can be strengthened, and giving as much as possible is personal and unique to each person at different stages in life. It opens the conversation to anyone who is ready and willing to make a difference.
So, how do we focus in and make a difference? How do we maintain our energy and passion and not burn out? How do we become better at valuing life? Becoming a philanthropist is a daily practice that must be nurtured. It involves knowing what our communities need, understanding our personal stories of giving and receiving, and asking the right questions. Above all it takes a personal commitment, and the integrity, to see something through. Hector learned something new about his community, recognized that he had the resources to do something about it, and acted with conviction. His actions don’t just make him a nice boy (though he is certainly that); his actions make him a budding philanthropist.
It is becoming increasingly vital to our well-being to embrace the word philanthropist because the words we use to describe ourselves send powerful messages about our values and our passions. What we call things matters. Donors give money and volunteers give time, which are transactional in nature. A philanthropist considers the larger implications of her actions, thinking strategically and acting with intention. A philanthropist is transformational. And right now the world is in need of transformation.
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