“The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.” – James Baldwin
Human beings display an odd contradiction:
Most of us have a deep and true desire to be giving and helpful. Yet meanwhile, many of us don’t act on that desire absent a tangible avenue toward doing so.
I suppose this dichotomy exists because life is a balancing act between the self and the other. Serving the self is inevitable, for the sake of mere survival. Serving the other might not come as naturally, or reveal as tangible gains.
Just the same, it’s human to want to serve other people. The question becomes, then, how do we get started?
Personally, in terms of philanthropy, I think it’s always the right time to get started. You can never be too early or too late. The real obstacle is finding a way in…
I remember when I applied to college. I didn’t have much in the way of external guidance, so a lot of trial and error was involved. In the beginning, I made more obvious choices, but as I grew accustomed to the process, I was able to become more subtle and nuanced in my approach.
So it goes with philanthropic efforts. Many young people stick to conventional volunteer programs: Big Brothers Big Sisters, United Way, local food banks, and so on. But what about a more alternative approach? What about an organization that let’s you pool money with fellow investors to fund nonprofits, while also getting the chance to actually become engaged by consulting those nonprofits? Such was my experience with Social Venture Partners (SVP). SVP even has a version of “Shark Tank” called “Fast Pitch”, which allows nonprofits to compete for grants to scale their businesses. If you’re under the age of 35, SVP will welcome you as an associate member at a lower rate. Some employers will even match your contributions, so you end up only paying half of your annual contribution in membership fees. This is of course far different from volunteering at a food bank.
Needless to say, no form of giving is inherently better than any other, yet one is wise to be open to different and surprising forms before strictly embracing approaches that are in plain sight. At SVP, I not only got involved, I networked, gained professional experience, and developed relationships with community and thought leaders.
This experience was all a far cry from my previous perception, which was that philanthropy was the province of the rich and the elderly, on a level similar to playing golf or attending fine art exhibits – the kind of thing Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg got involved in.
During my Detroit upbringing, in a single-parent home, with a mother on welfare and scarce resources, philanthropy seemed a universe away. To call my childhood challenging would be a major understatement. Drug-dealing, crime, violence; it was all around me. Whereas my friends gravitated to the streets; I gravitated to the realm of sports. Our hostile society couldn’t touch me during Track & Field. Moreover, Track & Field took me around the country, exposing my young eyes to ways of life that existed in deep contrast to what I’d known back in Detroit.
Sports as an outlet not only rescued me, it did something better: Sports gave me hope.
I achieved local and even national recognition, culminating in me being named a U.S. All-American. It was that accomplishment which threw the door open: So long, Detroit. Hello, future.
For many people, sports represent entertainment or diversion. For me, they represent HOPE in its purest form. They were my ticket; my way into “legitimate” society.
But once you pull up to that society, you must examine the role you wish to play within it. In my case, I’d like to increase exposure and opportunities to underrepresented minorities whose backgrounds are similar to my own. Urban areas don’t always shed light upon possibilities outside their own borders. This leads to penetrating mental constraints, ones which I’m determined to participate in disbanding.
Look at it this way:
Philanthropy is the new swag. You can get lost in it, in the best of ways. It offers opportunities for expansion, stimulation, and even fun – all in the course of offering help to other people. It shouldn’t be rarefied, like fine art. It should actually be as commonplace as swag.
Millennials are different from those of previous generations. We inherited a host of extraordinary challenges: economic, environmental, governmental, societal. As a result, we’re driven to get involved. The proliferation of tech start-ups, social entrepreneurs, and people under 40 into previously guarded philanthropic circles enhances my preexisting sense of hope.
Philanthropy’s not only right, it’s cool – which marks a major social shift…
Coolness used to veer toward self-absorption. Coolness was image, attitude, superiority, mystique. Nowadays, humanity’s concerns make mystique an afterthought. People are less drawn to the mystery of the sealed-off individual, and more drawn to the reality of who we all actually are. What’s cool is what’s real, and what’s real are the problems that all of face together.
How, then, do we work on solving these problems?
By all means, start on the common path, the soup kitchens and the food banks, but be open to all the strange, surprising avenues extending from it. I once never dreamed that I could participate in an organization such as SVP. The model sneaked up on me. The people sneaked up on me. The level of good that we could do in that way absolutely took me by surprise.
But I learned that there are as many ways to give as there are deserving recipients. The key is to know that the way in is right there underneath your nose…
And knowing that today is always the best time to start.