Passion is the defining characteristic of effective philanthropists. It’s what separates people who “make donations” from people who make a substantial and lasting impact in the fields they choose to support.
Passion isn’t limited to mega-donors. At all levels of giving, passionate philanthropists are energetic — they will roll up their sleeves and commit time as well as money to the causes they care about. Passionate philanthropists are focused — they might contribute to favorite charities of friends and associates, but will direct the bulk of their energy toward the fulfillment of a single charitable goal. And passionate philanthropists are effective — they will stay the course and reap the rewards of sustained commitment to their goals.
People initially become involved in philanthropy for all sorts of reasons — business, social, political, ethical, religious, personal. But regardless of motivation, all philanthropists, in the end, get much more out of it than they give. Giving becomes a passion that nourishes itself, an endlessly renewable source of energy.
Passionate philanthropy can begin at any age. Just as some people already know when they’re very young exactly what they want to do with their lives, for others it can take a lifetime.
When I first assumed my current professional position in the late 1980s, I met “J.,” a gentleman in his late 70s, a child of the Depression. J. had worked hard all his life, built a successful business and provided well for his family. While he was always modestly philanthropic, his primary concern, like many of his generation, was saving for a rainy day.
That rainy day never came and, J. began to realize, probably wasn’t going to come. In the meantime, he had acquired substantial wealth, in the millions of dollars. He concluded that he had met his responsibilities to his wife and children and had also set aside sufficient funds for them after he was gone. But he felt that there was something more he could do. He just didn’t know what.
J. asked me for advice on how he might channel his wealth philanthropically. He essentially wanted to know, “How do I responsibly give away what I responsibly earned?” He had no “pet” charities of his own and little hands-on experience with the nonprofit sector, and he was worried about his lack of expertise. I suggested that we simply explore and better define his philanthropic interests, and the rest would follow.
I advised him to try getting involved with causes that interested him as a way to help him to discover his own individual philanthropic calling. He signed up to do volunteer work with a number of different organizations, not as a board member (though any board would have been lucky to have him), but as a hands-on volunteer. He worked with an environmental group, visited children who were sick and made a number of trips to Israel. It was the children that touched him most deeply and through them he found his passion. J. had always been good with his hands, and now set up a woodshop in his home so he could build toys to deliver to children in the hospital, a practice he continued for years. The joy that his gifts brought to these children was exceeded only by the joy that the children gave him.
For J., an exploration about philanthropy ended up giving him a new direction and purpose in life. It also led him to focus his philanthropic efforts on programs that assisted needy children in Los Angeles and in Israel.
Why is it important to find your philanthropic passion? Numerous studies have documented the health benefits of altruism and the “helper’s high” that comes from giving to others. Philanthropic engagement connects you to the community. It allows you to feel needed and appreciated, to witness your values in action, to contribute to positive change.
Today, however, the sheer number of good causes clamoring for support can become overwhelming. There more than 910,000 charitable 501(c)3 organizations registered throughout the country. In fact, there are so many choices that many donors may avoid them altogether by sticking with an umbrella fund like the Jewish Federation or United Way, both of which have excellent track records and can be counted on to distribute funds where the need is greatest.
But by honing a philanthropic focus and doing a little homework, donors can find the perfect match between their own charitable goals and the worthy organizations that share them. Typically, this honing process tends to happen later in life, because that is when most people finally have the time, and the psychological and financial freedom, to think about it. But ideally the process can start much earlier.
I know a family that includes five siblings, ages 6 to 15, following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents, all generous Los Angeles philanthropists. With their parents’ encouragement, these precocious youngsters arranged to meet with a community foundation program officer who asked the children to describe what they see in the world that concerns them. Their list grew long and included hardships they knew that many children faced growing up in less privileged circumstances than their own — hunger, poverty, homelessness, broken families and lack of educational opportunities.
The program officer returned several weeks later with descriptions of eight different agencies and programs that addressed the children’s concerns. The one the siblings found most compelling was a homeless shelter designed to meet the special needs of families, including large families like their own.
Together with their parents and the program officer, the girls made a site visit, toured the facility and met with the executive director. By the end, they knew that this was where they wanted to lend their support.
But the form of the girls’ gift took a creative and truly original turn when the youngest of the five siblings, a first grader, asked about the children living in the shelter, “Do they ever get to go on family vacations?”
The girls suggested the idea of a recreation program that would provide opportunities for family “mini vacations.” Working with the program officer, the shelter’s staff developed a proposal in consultation with residents. Now, thanks to a grant from the family’s foundation, the program the siblings initiated will enable children and their families to spend quality time together — away from the shelter and the daily pressures of work and school — attending live music and theater performances, visiting museums, going bowling, playing miniature golf and having picnics in the park.
The project will have genuine impact, and for these five siblings, it has sparked a philanthropic passion that is certain to grow over time.
The coming decades will see the largest transfer of wealth in our nation’s history. Some $8 trillion will be passed from Americans over 50 to their children and grandchildren. The great challenge this presents is how to successfully transfer philanthropic values along with that wealth. Educating successive generations from an early age is not only essential, it’s a great way to bring families together.
I have worked with a married couple in their 50s to create what they call their “philanthropic family business.” They have set aside funds in a family foundation and have enlisted their three children, 18 to 25 years old, as active participants in developing the foundation’s mission statement and investment plan, assessing community needs, making site visits and selecting grant recipients, and volunteering and getting to know key professionals in the organizations they support.
Young people like these have been blessed with the opportunity to become philanthropically engaged long before many of their contemporaries. They are cultivating a passion to do good and are poised to become tomorrow’s most generous givers.
One’s passion, like everything else in life, is not static. It’s different when you’re 15, 35, 55 and 75, ever evolving and changing.
What doesn’t change is the universal quest for meaning in one’s life. Passionate philanthropic engagement can make all the difference in that quest, while also making a real and demonstrable difference in the world.
And a philanthropist is never alone. One’s compassion and concern are shared by others and good advice is plentiful—from professional advisers, from community foundations, through your own networks of business colleagues and extended family, and from members of your religious congregation.
Your task is to find and express the uniqueness of your charitable vision and, by teaching or by example alone, to pass your passion on to others.
Marvin I. Schotland is president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and currently serves on the board of directors of more than 25 family foundations, as well as several regional and national nonprofit organizations. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Privilege magazine.