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Doing Good: Doing What We Can With What We Have

Published on: December 29, 2013

elizabethpeacecorpsbabyonbacksharpenHave you ever wondered how you and your family or community of friends and colleagues can make more of a difference in the world? Or how you can foster generosity in your children?

Have you felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of opportunities to volunteer or donate? Maybe you work full time or are a stay-at-home parent and feel you have little energy left over.

Perhaps, like a lot of us, you want to learn more about ways to do good, even when you might have precious little extra time or income at your disposal.

It is my intention, through this blog called Doing Good, to help readers connect with causes they care about and help to spark discussions about making a difference. I hope that you will be inspired in some way to take an action. It could be as small as reading, sharing an idea or a piece of information, brainstorming your passions, or as big as volunteering or donating.

What is this thing called philanthropy?

For a long time, I had a limited view of what philanthropy meant. I’d always thought a philanthropist was a wealthy person who donated lots of money to their favorite charities. We’ve all heard of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Angelina Jolie. Obviously, there is fame and lots of media attention attached to those folks. There are also those local philanthropists within our own communities, the ones who get those great buildings built and keep essential programs continuing.

So I always figured, “No way, I am not a philanthropist!” I certainly am not in the same league as those wealthy people. Sure, I donate a few dollars here and there to causes I believe in, but mostly I just volunteer whenever I have the time.

I was curious. I looked up the definition:

Philanthropy: comes from the Greek word “philanthropos”, which means “humanity, benevolence, or loving of humankind.” [From The Generosity Plan by Kathy LeMay]; “altruistic concern for human beings, especially as manifested by donations of money, property, or work to needy persons or to institutions advancing human welfare.” [Webster’s College Dictionary]

My family wasn’t particularly philanthropic, although my father, now a retired college professor, devoted lots of time and energy to Amnesty International, and my mother, a homemaker, volunteered at the local art museum. My parents, three siblings and I didn’t participate in volunteer activities together. In fact, it wasn’t until after college in the late eighties, that I took my first volunteer gig: The Peace Corps (see pic above).

Perhaps my instincts to be philanthropic and my interest in helping raise awareness about important issues were developed through years of coping with a disability. Perhaps my hearing loss (though not readily apparent until I start talking and people realize I sound a little different and ask me, “What country are you from?”) has made me more sensitive and compassionate to all kinds of people in all different situations.

Or maybe it was my experience working at a Mentholatum and Co. factory packaging suppositories when I was in high school. Many of the people I worked with had been there for years and years, and they knew this was just a temporary stop for me. I remember connecting with them really well — they were so down-to-earth and friendly and also curious about the opportunities that were available to me. And all this time, what kept running through my head was, They are never going to get to leave this place.

Fast forward 20 years: After Peace Corps, I got a public health degree and worked in different jobs trying to make a difference while raising my two children. I started reading more, trying to glean information about what more I could be doing. I read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, was impressed by their chapter on “What you can do” and was motivated to host small education circles to learn more about various global health topics, such as obstetric fistula and lack of access to water.

But then I read Kathy Le May’s introduction in her book, The Generosity Plan, and my worldview of philanthropy was turned upside down:

“Philanthropy is you and me doing what we can, with what we have, where we are … " [from Theodore Roosevelt]

Philanthropy is taking action for the greater good. Philanthropy is each of us contributing our time, our talents, and our financial resources to make a difference. Chances are, you have been practicing philanthropy most of your life.

If you have ever put a donation into the church collection basket, volunteered at a food bank or nursing home, participated in a fundraising walk-a-thon or road race, or written a check to a cause that is near to your heart, then you are a philanthropist.

If your intention is to make the world a better place, and you have given your time, opened your wallet, or offered your talents without an expectation of making money or getting a return, then you are a practicing philanthropist.

The only difference between you and me and Bill Gates: His checks have more zeroes and he has staff who help him create a plan. Don’t worry about adding more zeroes to your check; philanthropy is not about how much. Philanthropy is intention combined with focus and action.

LeMay’s book goes on to outline ways of developing a generosity plan for yourself to implement the three T’s: sharing your time, treasure, and talent. In this youtube video, she talks about how to get on this path.

What a great “aha” moment: I have been a practicing philanthropist since I was a Peace Corps volunteer! And here was a starting point for modeling and talking to my kids about how to be generous, compassionate and motivated to do good in the world.

elizabethgenerosityplanI’d like to leave you with some questions to get you started on this path. Remember, it takes time to build a philanthropic practice, but it can be a wonderful endeavor with your family:

  • How do you currently practice philanthropy in your life?
  • What do you find fulfilling about this practice? If you want to do more, but find it difficult, what are the barriers?
  • What do you really care about, beyond your family’s health and success?
  • What are the problems and issues that tug at your heart and mind that make you want to do more?

I look forward to sharing my ideas with you in this space. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with your own thoughts and ideas.

2171Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.

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