Loving Humanity

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Permissions given by Aaron Dorfman and IU School of Philanthropy.]

by Aaron Dorfman

Good philanthropy, real philanthropy, is all about loving humanity. If you want to make a difference with a career in philanthropy, you’ve got to keep that love for humanity front and center in your work, all the time. Without that, nothing else matters.

The kind of love I’m talking about is not sappy or sentimental. Princeton Professor Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

Theologian Carter Heyward wrote in her great work Our Passion for Justice: “Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; ...As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk.”

The fact is that making an impact with a career in philanthropy means you’re going to have to struggle and take some risks.

You can’t make an impact if you’re comfortable all the time.

So that’s my overarching piece of advice – keep love for humanity at the center of your work.

There are three additional, slightly more concrete, suggestions I want to offer as you embark on and continue your careers in philanthropy:

1. Always remember it’s not your money.

When we work in the philanthropic sector, whether as grant makers or grant seekers, donor or doers, we have to remember that we are stewards. The dollars entrusted to us are not our own. We have been given an imperative responsibility to help ensure those dollars do the most good in the world. Even if you’re the donor, once you give the money to a foundation, it’s not your money anymore – it’s money for a charitable purpose. What’s more, tax policy in the United States means that every time a donor makes a gift, assuming he or she claims a deduction, other taxpayers are also subsidizing that gift. Charitable dollars are therefore partially public dollars. If we remember that, it’s easier to feel accountable for making good use of the funds that have been entrusted to us.

2. Listen to and share power with people who are directly affected.

Too often in philanthropy, we listen to the experts, to the “smart” people who have all the right credentials. But more than two decades of experience shows me that you’ve got to listen as much or more to the people who are directly affected by the issues you’re working to address as you do to the so-called experts if you want to make a difference for the long term. And don’t just listen to them. Share your power. Put them on the board of directors if you’re in a position to do that. If you’re spending all your time with technocrats and powerful elites, you’re doing it wrong. When we democratize philanthropy, we unleash its true power.

3. Take risks, be bold, and stand up for those who are oppressed.

What philanthropy needs, more than anything else, is people with heart willing to take a stand. Some people talk about neutrality or objectivity as one of philanthropy’s assets, but I think that’s just not true. Neutrality benefits the status quo. People with power and privilege want you to be neutral. One of my favorite quotes on this is from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

If you want to make a difference with a career in philanthropy, you’ve got to stand for something. And if you’re on the giving side of the philanthropic table, you’ve got to support the rabble rousers, the community organizers, and the advocates who are fighting the good fight. Moving money to those kinds of people and organizations has a tremendous bang for the buck. It’s true, we’ve done the research.

My friend Senator Wellstone used to say that he went to Washington to speak up for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers, because the Rockefellers already had plenty of people speaking for them. Philanthropy, too, already has plenty of people speaking up for the Rockefellers. We desperately need people who will speak up for the little fellers.

And so I’ll close with a wish. My wish for you is that at some point in your career, you’ll get in trouble for standing up a little too boldly for the downtrodden in your communities. Then you’ll know you’re really making a difference with a career in philanthropy.

Thank you, and congratulations!

Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. NCRP works to ensure America's grantmakers are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. 

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