“Philanthropy” Is NOT What You Think It Is

Do you understand what the word “philanthropy” really means? If you don’t, it could be costing your nonprofit organization a fortune in lost support. Conversely, once you know the true meaning of “philanthropy,” you’ll be better able to relate to prospective donors and inspire them to give. So, what does the word truly mean?

If you’re like most people, you probably think you know what “philanthropy” means. “Philanthropy” involves a large contribution to a nonprofit organization from a wealthy individual, a philanthropist. A recent example of this would be Michael Bloomberg’s recent announcement that he is donating $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University, the largest individual donation ever made to a single university.

However, that understanding of “philanthropy” is entirely too narrow. Let me explain by first telling you what “philanthropy” is not. Philanthropy does not necessarily involve:

  • donating vast sums of money;
  • supporting large numbers of charities;
  • sitting on nonprofit boards;
  • only wealthy people.

Coming from the ancient Greek, here is what the word “philanthropy” actually means:

Love of humanity.

Signs of support appeared throughout Pittsburgh following the murders at Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation.

Think about that. People donate their time and money to nonprofit organizations because of their love of humanity (or animals). They want to solve problems and alleviate suffering. They want to make the world a better place. That’s what motivates people to think philanthropically.

People won’t think philanthropically simply because it’s Giving Tuesday, and you tell them they should. They won’t think philanthropically just because they attended your university and are told they should “give back.” They won’t think philanthropically just because your organization exists and is a household name.

If you tap into a person’s love of humanity, you’ll tap into their philanthropic spirit. That’s how you’ll inspire their support. That’s how you’ll upgrade their support. That’s how you’ll maintain their support.

Charitable giving is an expression of a donor’s love.

I was reminded recently of the true power of the  philanthropic spirit. It wasn’t Bloomberg’s massive gift, though that was definitely amazing. Instead, when I visited Pittsburgh, I was reminded of the power of love to build, and rebuild, strong communities.

Temporary memorial outside of Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation.

When my wife and I traveled to Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, we attended evening Sabbath services with the congregants of the Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha Congregation in their temporary home. This was less than two weeks after a gunman entered the synagogue and horrifically murdered 11 people as they worshiped. Praying with the congregants, talking with them, and meeting Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers was a profoundly moving experience. Making the evening even more moving was the fact that it fell on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass. During Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, Jews were murdered and synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were vandalized and had their windows smashed.

Support came from around the world.

Rabbi Myers drew a parallel between Kristallnacht and the recent attack that nearly took his life. Both violent attacks were motivated by rabid anti-Semitism, which has been on the rise in America since 2014. However, Rabbi Myers also drew meaningful distinctions between the two events.

During Kristallnacht, officially sanctioned groups along with German civilians attacked the Jewish population. Local authorities did nothing to stop the attacks. The police protected non-Jewish citizens while arresting and imprisoning Jewish victims.

By contrast, American authorities condemned the Pittsburgh attack immediately, and offered comfort to the victims. People throughout Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the United States, and the world expressed their sense of horror and grief. They offered words of condolence, and made donations to help the families and to rebuild the badly damaged synagogue. The police in Pittsburgh ran toward the danger, put their own lives at risk, confronted the attacker, and ended what could have been an even more tragic event.

Thousands have offered support.

In the aftermath of the attack on Tree of Life, the tributes have poured in. A temporary memorial was created outside of the synagogue, and has been visited by thousands of people including President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump. Across the street, a small group of caring individuals staffed a tent that offered “Free Hugs” and coffee.

As heartbreaking as the anti-Semitic murders in Pittsburgh were, we can take some comfort in knowing that love is a more powerful force today than it was in Germany 80 years ago. Philanthropy, the love of humanity, is strong. As the signs in Pittsburgh declare, “Stronger than Hate.” Love brings people together. Love heals. Love brings change. Love conquers hate.

When we can show people how their love can be expressed through charitable giving, we are tapping into something profound. That’s how we can inspire meaningful support.

Support came from diverse, caring people.

My wife and I are still processing what happened in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018, to our fellow Jews, our fellow Americans. We still reflect on our experience with the congregation and at the memorial. We take comfort in knowing that the community, and so many around the globe, have embraced not only the Tree of Life Congregation but also the entire Jewish community. We also take comfort in knowing there are things we can all do to embrace love and combat hate:

  1. Continue your professional work to build a better world.
  2. Strive to hate less and love more. Be a philanthropist in the truest sense of the word.
  3. Embrace the life-rule of Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) who said, “I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended.”
  4. Remember those who died in the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger,

Now, I want to leave you with some thoughts about hate and love that I have found meaningful from Rabbi Jeffrey Myers:

Hate is not blue, hate is not red, hate is not purple… hate is in all. Speak words of love, speak words of decency and of respect. When the message comes loud and clear, Americans will hear that, and we can begin to change the tenor of our country.”

It is just continuous in this vicious cycle. Hate promulgating more hate promulgating more hate. We need to be better than this, we can be better than this.”

Finally, here is a relevant excerpt from President George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

8 Comments to ““Philanthropy” Is NOT What You Think It Is”

  1. Thank you Michael! You present a good reminder of what philanthropy really is at the core – love for others. I am glad you were able to be at the synagogue that evening to hear Rabbi Myers and share his thoughts with us. His message is coming out loud and clear and I believe there are far more helpers in our country than haters. I hope you and Lisa have a wonderful holiday season and a very happy and healthy New Year.

  2. Being from Pittsburgh and having grown up near Squirrel Hill, as well as being a frequent visitor to the area, this carries even more meaning for me. Thank you Michael for this informative and moving piece.
    Years ago I wrote to a board member who refused to give to a nonprofit because she said she could not be a major donor. I explained the meaning of philanthropy and that major was not about the size of the gift, but about the impact. She ultimately became not only a donor but what the organization would technically define as a major gift donor.
    One final note, I did speak with someone from another ethnic group which has also been the target of attacks. They are feeling as though the atrocities against their group have received little notice. I’m not sure what the answer is, just the need to remember that many suffer.

    • Sophie, thank you for sharing your story. Regarding the publicity that ethnic attacks receive or don’t receive, I don’t know what the answer is. I suspect the media covers events based on the volume of violence against a particular group and the size of that particular group relative to the general population. Or, maybe not. In any case, I think the solution for our society is to strive to put an end to all forms of bigotry.

  3. Great article – glad you took the time to visit the Tree of Life congregation on such an auspicious date.

  4. Michael – I always find tremendous value in your posts and frequently share them with others in the field. As a Pittsburgher, this post was even more meaningful to me. Next time you are in the city, I would love the opportunity to meet you.

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