What I thought about Philanthropy before I knew what it was

What I thought about Philanthropy before I knew what it was

Before I knew about Philanthropic Studies or lived in a region of the country where fundraising had been professionalized, I had an inkling that my experience as a nonprofit fundraiser was missing something really important. I got into fundraising because I was desperate for a job following a divorce and couldn’t find anyone in my “progressive” southern city who would hire someone with two English degrees who had spent the last eight years as a stay-at-home mom and Junior-Leaguer. It was through my volunteer work that I made contacts at local nonprofit organizations and was hired as an education director managing school field trips at a botanical garden. This organization had a Director of Development. She was a friend from the neighborhood, and I still practice many of the techniques and approaches to fundraising that I observed in her. It would be years later before I truly began to understand the business of nonprofits, the role of the professional fundraiser in the sector and the human condition that makes philanthropy possible.

I begin KatPhilanthropy with an essay that was the catalyst for a search that began at that time for what is behind the business of philanthropy, and what I believe must always be front and center to the practice. The blog below was posted on my Facebook page in 2012 and written in a rage. I wrote it before I understood the difference between compassion and empathy – the difference is important and something that will be discussed in future posts. Hint: empathy and compassion are NOT the same thing. Even so, it expresses my awareness of a missing link in the practice of philanthropy – the heart. The group I talk about below are not a demographic we often consider when we think of philanthropy, but this practice is not entirely about nonprofit organizations or the missions they represent. Need is all around.

With so many people in need of compassion these days, it’s a good thing that it is an emotion that most people feel pretty comfortable with.  Unfortunately, the process of comfortably transmuting our compassion into a tangible response seems to have disappeared. My off-the-cuff sense of the impetus is something to do with the evolution of our communities from a more diverse and interactive environment into the suburb life with 8-foot fences and neighbors who may hear each other on the back deck for twenty years but never meet. As we have created private islands within crowded communities and controlled our interactions because we actually have the choice (no need to interact when you can do everything online or with your cell phone), we’ve lost our comfort with each other.  Somewhere along the journey of this shift in the way we live, most have forgotten about the element of compassion that includes a compulsion to alleviate a condition that we respond emotionally to. Those few who might remember that part have no idea how to make that happen without stepping outside of their comfort zone.

But before I harp on people not expressing the true meaning of compassion, let me say that compassion is a two-way street. At the same time we have dissolved the action that follows the emotion we have also unlearned how to accept compassion. Part of the problem here is that compassion has been symbolized through our stories and our media as a response to people who are really ill, poor, children, abused animals, etc. These are worthy places for us to feel compassion, but by using only the most suffering as the symbols for this emotion we have, essentially as a culture, disqualified those whose suffering is not as catastrophic and cruel. So the other part of that, then, is that many who suffer feel they are not worthy of the kind of compassion that includes the sympathy followed by the call to action. I point this out to say from the start that, yes, even with the tools to express compassion properly in the hand of every member of my community, there are those who are not empowered to accept it.

By its very definition, compassion is about you as much as it is about the person suffering. It doesn’t happen without that, and that fact should not become a source of criticism or guilt. Because even if the bit about oneself presents as a desire to receive praise, or self-promote etc, that is all secondary to the fact that the reason we respond to someone suffering is because we connect to their humanity.

I have been observing the giving and receiving of compassion within the context of my middle class environment since 2009 when economic upheaval wreaked havoc for so many multi-generational middle classers and suddenly dropped them into poverty. There are a lot of shocking revelations that have come out of this period including, the loss of value of a university degree, the complete breakdown of previous processes for securing a job (think “smart” HR technology), hiring prejudices against older workers, women and the unemployed, rampant underemployment, and middle classers with Bachelor and Masters degrees unemployed for years. And in the midst of this idea that despite doing everything right, not only may there never be a solution, but there is also little help dealing with what is left: homes that are over-mortgaged, minimal savings, and the loss of medical protection. 

The response to this particular version of the ongoing global turmoil has revealed a lapse in the emotional education of my community. I guess compassion was left behind at some point when it was no longer needed as a call to action but simply a response of sympathy for the kinds of things that didn’t require anything beyond that. So now that so many in my community are in desperate need of assistance, they don’t know how to ask for it, they don’t know how to accept it, and most don’t know how to properly offer it

The way forward is, first, to hear me when I say that compassion is sympathy followed by a tangible response. In all respect to the faithful; prayers, drumming circles, and good thoughts are a cop-out.  The people who need help are our friends, neighbors and family members. I’m not saying to stop praying for things to get better, but the larger issues beyond one-to-one compassion are not my issue at the moment. I am talking about your friend who divorced and re-entered the work force only to be let go from her job and never rehired again. I’m talking about your brother who had to move home with your parents. I’m talking about your neighbor whose kids had to come home from college when he burned through his 401K within three years of having his job eliminated and still hasn’t found full-time work. I’m talking about the fact that most of these friends and family members have no medical coverage and either pay the cash value for all their medical care or just skip it.

I wrote this piece after seeing a Facebook post where a woman posted a plea for assistance with expenses for an emergency procedure to, essentially, save her sight. As difficult as I know it must have been for her to post such a thing as an educated former professional, the responses literally enraged me. One woman currently posting vacation photos offered to pray for her. Someone else was sending her good thoughts. Several dozen “liked” her post. I’m scared to ask her how many private messages she actually received from people willing to write her a check.

At what point did we stop taking care of each other? Was it when we chose to shame the unemployed of our class who lost positions due to corporate downsizing and emotionally respond to their situation as if they either had an aversion to work or a drug addiction? Do we think that the bad luck we see our peers experiencing is contagious? Are we afraid that giving away a hundred bucks to a friend in need is going to result in us losing our house or living out our old age in a state home for the aged? Please, please don’t tell me that your failure to assist is an attempt to protect their pride. We need to ask ourselves this question: Why are we not helping? To help or not is your personal decision, but don’t call yourself compassionate because you offer to pray for your friend when you have the resources to help. Your prayers are a blessing but they are not about tangibly engaging with the suffering of another. And then ask yourself why you aren’t doing that. Maybe it’s been so long since we’ve practiced true compassion with the people in our lives that we don’t have the tools to do it and we are just scared. Or maybe black and white thinking means that a commitment to compassion looks like a mad ride in a Greenpeace boat or a massive donation to a non-profit. Those are great ideas but they fail to meet the integral element of compassion as well – emotional intimacy with the person you are helping.

Is this, then, where we really have fear? Maybe we say that we, too, are struggling financially and just can’t make a habit of helping in that way. We wish we could. If you have a job then you have some spare money to help a friend without one. The loss of compassion has cheated us of an important part of our humanity – the part of us that is the most human – the connection with others. The reason we avoid compassion is because what comes from the tangible response to sympathy for another is awkward. It could involve tears. It could break our hearts open. It is exactly what is required – and it is exactly what makes us human.

Forget for the moment about saving the world or helping strangers – help someone you are already emotionally connected to.

Don’t ask your girlfriend who is so broke and stressed she’s borrowing your meds out for a drink to “take your mind of your troubles.” Give her some cash or buy her groceries. If she struggles to accept it, force her to. If she falls apart in shame, hug her.

If you have a job, go to your HR department once a week and ask them what the viable (not the ones which will be part of a hopeful contract award) opportunities at the moment are and then post them on FB and LinkedIn and tell interested friends to private message you. Try to find people you know to fill these positions.

Stop talking about your unemployed 40-something sibling living at your parents behind their back. They need family more than ever. They have the same credentials and intelligence as you – they just had the bad luck to land on the pink slip list. Think of all the morons you work with and admit that it probably isn’t entirely a character a flaw that lost them their job.

Hire the kid of your unemployed friend. Even if you can’t afford to pay their light bill for a month, you can take some pressure off by getting their kid some driving around money.

Don’t shut your unemployed friends out of social opportunities because you feel awkward. But use this opportunity to improve your manners by socializing without bragging about your material possessions right in front of them when they can’t make their car payment.

See your compassion through to the end. Don’t give a friend a $50 Target Gift Card and think you’ve earned your place in heaven. Stay with them. This situation is a very long road.

Pull your family back into a cohesive unit when a member loses a job or has a health issue emerge.  Break down the barriers, take them into your home and your life and reconnect the love you shared before everyone grew up and moved away.

If you are a health practitioner, recognize when a patient is avoiding treatment because of cost and, occasionally for the right person, just do it. Are you going to go broke if you do? Do you think this action is the same as running a full-page ad for free care? Believe me, an educated former professional facing poverty won’t tell what you did.

If you are a hiring manager, hire someone currently unemployed. All the stuff about the unemployed not having the energy to pull a full day is bullshit. You lose everything you own and your future and see if you aren’t more than happy to work your ass off. You might also be surprised to discover that navigating job boards and online applications and creating professional profiles has an unemployed candidate more current on emerging issues and tools and better resourced than the guy currently working away in his cubicle.

Don’t think you can substitute cash with “sage advice.” These are former professionals we are talking about – they are very capable of researching options and navigating government programs and community charities. If they are floundering then they have exhausted all options.

If the truth truly is that you are too fearful about emotional intimacy, too miserly or a devote of the theory that only the fittest survive then don’t try to make yourself feel better by telling a friend in need that you will pray for them or send them good thoughts.

Even those who need compassion can offer it. Pull together, feed each other, help find solutions for each other, console each other, encourage each other….

Don’t cheat yourself out of experiencing compassion. There is nothing more wonderful than helping someone and sharing in their feelings of gratitude and relief. There is nothing more wonderful than connecting with someone on an emotional level. If we didn’t all crave that connection with another there would be no sappy songs, commercials, novels or movies. We have satiated this human craving to be compassionate by crying for characters in films and have avoided the real thing. We have grown up idolizing heroes yet are afraid to be one. Identify someone close to you who needs the compassion that includes a desire to alleviate suffering and help them.  It could change your life for the better, and it will sure as hell change theirs.