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December 2013

Philanthropy: Anything but blasé.

When you think about those things in life we come about in a completely natural way, some fairly blasé experiences come to mind: chewing, snoring or for that matter, sleeping.


Experiences that go beyond blasé and into the more interesting, juicy parts of life where purpose and meaning take hold – those experiences don’t usually happen by accident. They are either based upon or enhanced by learning, talking, being educated and sharing with others. Even those things that seem quite natural – sports or music, for example – become much fuller experiences when knowledge is behind them.


It starts when we’re kids. Jumping in the pool might just be a fun thing to do, but learning to swim takes some work, and when you work at it, it can help overcome fear, be great for your health, change your mood, and become much more than just taking a dip. Kicking a ball around a field might pass some time on a hot summer day, but soccer camp teaches kids important pointers about being part of a team, how to interact with others under stress, and how to manage the urge to win. Piano lessons are another good example. Doled out with the same rigor as eating spinach, they teach you so much that positively impacts other things in life.


From the ridiculous to the sublime, from riding a bike to learning language to building a career – learning, talking, being educated and sharing with others are so fundamental, essential and critical a part of meaningful life experiences we don’t even think about them as “add-ons,” they just “are.”


So why does philanthropy so often wind up in the chewing, snoring, sleepy blasé camp?


Here’s what happens. Right around the time you’re learning to read a book, someone, somewhere, puts a basket or a blue box in front of you and you get that what’s expected is for you to deposit a few coins. No one says very much about it but you see others doing it and you get the idea.


Some time later, right about when you’re studying in the library trying to pass college exams, you start getting letters from the university explaining how important it is to “give back.” But your mind is elsewhere, and you know they’re just planting seeds that you may or may not tend to later. You’re not ready to think about what it means to be an alumnus.


A decade or two or three later, you’ve put enormous energy and brain power into building a successful career, and you’ve got a child in school and that school wakes up to the fact that you might have some means, so you’re asked to contribute – and you do.


It escalates from there. Your friends ask you to buy a table at a dinner, and you do. Your colleague asks you to join a nonprofit board, and you do. Somewhere, there’s a vague memory of the basket or the blue box, but not a whole lot has happened beyond that, except one thing: You’re a philanthropist now – and you’re totally unprepared to be one. The training wheels aren’t only off. They were never on.


This can’t be good news when you think about the $316 billion contributed in 2012 alone, with $228 billion coming from generous, well meaning people just like those I’m describing here. [32% of all that philanthropy is going to religion, which makes me think about the power of that basket and the blue box!


I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to go out there and take philanthropy lessons, but there is an enormous amount of information available at the click of a mouse, and that information will lead to more information, which will lead to questions you never thought of and then – here’s a radical idea: Talk about your philanthropy with your friends. Invite some people over for dinner, and tell them ahead of time that while you may not be in the same league as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, there’s a reason the whole Giving Pledge was designed around the dinner table, where people relax and talk. You’ll be amazed at what you hear when you break bread together and ask, “What are you hoping to achieve through your philanthropy?”  


I’d like to hear how it goes.



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