How are you progressing in your plan to become a great philanthropist?
It helps to have a lot of money first, you say. True, but not so fast. Most of us can make more of a difference for good and for good by cultivating a spirit of generosity at any moment and every.
A titan of yesteryear, Andrew Carnegie, modeled that spirit. Carnegie’s portrait by an anonymous artist, circa 1905, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and alongside it are these words:
“The individual who amasses great wealth, declared Pittsburgh steelmaker Andrew Carnegie in his 1889 essay Gospel of Wealth, must in the end apply his fortune for the benefit of all. Having built one of the world’s largest fortunes, Carnegie took his mandate seriously. During his lifetime, he turned over a staggering $350 million, or nine-tenths of his total wealth, for benevolent purposes.
“Carnegie’s unprecedented largesse was matched only by its social impact. His Teachers Pension Fund raised instructional standards in colleges; his many library endowments provided Americans with a national system of public libraries; and the Carnegie Corporation, established in 1911, became the prototype for the great philanthropic foundations of the modern day. During the last years of his life, Carnegie devoted his energies to world peace, encouraging the great powers to settle their conflicts through arbitration rather than war.”
Carnegie’s generosity was broad and deep. He promoted the arts (Carnegie Hall) and higher education (Carnegie-Mellon University), which elevated the elite. But he cared about raising the bottom as much as creaming the top. His gifts strengthened teachers, created libraries and funded other social ventures that increased opportunity for people to climb the ladder of achievement.
Dallas could use more such philanthropy. We have a stunning arts district now. Our hospitals and universities continue to build and thrive. A gorgeous bridge and lovely new parks grace the landscape. Donors like to give to things they have confidence in. They like to leave legacies and not waste their money. They have done well and should be thanked and praised.
A few philanthropists, though, are working hard on solving problems of poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health and public education. These deserve precisely the thanks and praise they don’t seek because it’s not about them.
Carnegie’s giving pointed to three principles all of us can practice, whether we have a lot of money or a little. One, philanthropy is literally love of mankind; it’s not the love of only that part of human society that reflects the winners. Our society continues to find ways to reduce public funding that makes it possible for the disadvantaged to succeed. Philanthropy should model the opposite spirit.
Two, even people with little money often want to use what they give to identify with the upper crust. Great philanthropy is inspirational, not aspirational. It’s not about getting your name on a building; it’s about building up others.
Three, philanthropy is not a risk-averse investment that must assure a positive return. By their philanthropic nature, generous people show that giving is a virtue in itself, regardless of the end result. In fact, good results often result from initial failures. Which is why venture philanthropy can do so much good.
Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” Waiting to have much before you are faithful is to be unfaithful in a little and likely never to have much. Better get started now.