What makes philanthropy work? Starting.

image of shooting star
Here comes this month’s *SMIT (Single Most Important Thing I have to tell you).   The only reliable way to make wishes come true is through action. Caring… wishing… hoping… praying… that’s not enough.

“Voluntary action for the public good” is the way philanthropy has been beautifully defined by Robert Payton, Professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University. I’ve always loved the definition, because every single word has impact.  It’s not coerced; it’s voluntary. It’s not directed at private benefit; it’s for the public good.  And, most important, it’s implicitly about taking action – the giving of resources – to make something happen.
How many times do we wish really hard for something to happen, waiting for an opportunity to fall into our laps?  Today I came across Seth Godin’s blog post on this subject: The wishing/doing gap. It really resonated. He talks about what occurs when we rely on a wish to get us where we want to go.

We don’t act; we just think about opportunity knocking. We rationalize that if it happens, we’ll jump at it. We’ll know it was ‘meant to be.’  The perfect job…perfect mate… ideal time to take a vacation… to spend more time with an old friend… to make a new friend… to spend time with our kids… to take up a new hobby…to learn a new skill… … to volunteer… to support a candidate we believe in… to do those things on our bucket list.  Yet we never really get around to any of these things.  Our best intentions remain just that.  Undergirded by nothing more than magical thinking.
Magic.  It’s romantic.  We long for it.  But most real magic happens when people make it happen.  As Seth suggests, if you can make the magic happen, do so.  If you can’t, stop considering it because it will only distract you.  If you hate your job, don’t imagine it will magically change.  Do something to make it change.  If you love your kids, don’t imagine you’ll magically have more time to spend with them. Do something to spend more time with them now. Life is short.  We can’t waste the limited time we have wishing.
If you will have ‘anything your heart desires come to you,’ then wishing upon a star won’t make it happen. If there are wrongs in the world you’d like to see righted, wishing won’t do the trick. You make it happen.
Philanthropy is summed up for me by these two quotes:
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” –Anne Frank
“You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” – Pirke Avot, The Talmud
If we wait for it to happen, it probably won’t.  If we wait for the optimum time to arrive, it probably won’t.  If we think we have to finish, we probably won’t start.
 What’s your SMIT when it comes to taking the first step towards action?

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  1. Hi Claire,
    My parents set a great example of giving. I think it often starts at home – learning to care about others and seeing that our contributions can have an impact. As a writer and project manager of fundraising brochures, newsletters and annual reports, I delight in describing what the impact of one's giving can have on an organization – whether it's a program, a building or improving lives through goods or services to those in need. The answer is that it starts with caring.

  2. Thanks for this comment Liz. Caring is a starting point, yet often all our best intentions and thoughts are meaningless if we fail to act on them. Getting into the habit of acting is what makes it work for a lot of people.

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