Philanthropy as Discipline

Philanthropy as Discipline

(First of all – sorry for the Spyware, subscribers! I think it’s all taken care of now!)

I had a very interesting conversation this week with a young woman about philanthropy. She was preparing for some interviews for committee positions on the student government at her university, and as we chatted through potential interview questions she should expect and an angle to approach the opportunity that could set her apart – our discussion quickly turned to service.

Before I get into the surprising way this conversation suddenly turned, I need to set up the environment in which it took place. The term “philanthropy” is a new one for those of us in the southern United States. When I took a position as an Association Director of Philanthropy with the Nature Conservancy ten years ago, neither I nor any of my friends could even properly say the word. One of my friends kept calling me a philanthropist thinking that was a shorter way to describe my title not understanding that it changed the meaning entirely. My point is that philanthropy as we think about it in development and the academy is a new concept down there even though philanthropic giving has a strong tradition.

Words are everything, aren’t they? And the battle to preserve or even freeze the meaning of a word can be frustrating. Like everything else, place impacts meaning and language is always evolving within its environment.

So last week when I asked my young friend, “How do you all talk to the students about philanthropy?” She thought about that for just a second and then asked, “Well what if the only way it’s used is as punishment?”


Public service as a method to reconsider priorities and put yourself in the situation of another less fortunate than you is a classic way to repent for sins or get a life back on track. But that was developed in a religious structure as a way to humble oneself and turn focus onto those in need. Though it may have felt like punishment at times, that wasn’t the actual intent. So what this woman showed me is that, without the context and history of the original strategy behind public service or charity encouraged following bad behavior, philanthropy has been simplified in the minds of many to mean “discipline.”

I’ve written before about my frustration that required volunteer activities for young people often don’t provide a meaningful experience, but to think that a generation of people see it as punishment is just sad. Young people are compelled to volunteer because university applications and social clubs require it. As a motivation, that isn’t super pleasant; however – once they get to the opportunity, it can be a really meaningful experience. Except when it isn’t. Providing meaningful volunteer activities and internships in nonprofit organizations is so important. It is, in truth, part of cultivating future donors. But more important, it’s about introducing young people to the rewards of giving of oneself – physically and financially. This cultivation is the only way that nonprofit organizations can function in our economy, so we need people to want to help them meet their missions.

Educators and nonprofit leaders are simply going to have to take responsibility for this issue. For all the complaining about the decline in empathy in the young generation, maybe this isn’t entirely their fault. Maybe the reason they don’t seem to “care” is because helping others and making the world a better place is what you have to do when you misbehave.