We use the word “substance” to positively describe a person or a concept that reflects values of the true meaning of the word, which means a certain kind of matter. A substance has properties that are uniform and through that become physical. When we talk of people of substance, we mean they are robust through traits that we admire like knowledge or courage or tenacity, for example. If anyone were ever to tell us that another described us as “having substance,” we would consider it a very high complement.
In research I read in a course in altruism, studies have been done with people of all ages to determine the motivation for helping, volunteering with organizations or giving to nonprofits. The reason most often cited is the desire to do something meaningful.
In the field of fundraising we put a lot of effort into aligning giving opportunities with donors, and I certainly don’t argue with the wisdom of researching interest to make it more likely that someone will want to give. But I think that what often gets lost in that process is the fact that philanthropy is an opportunity to help someone find meaning in their own life and take substantive action.
I did an impact report for a university development unit once with a goal to represent every kind of gift I could imagine in order to help all readers find themselves somewhere in the pages. I wrote articles about giving circles, student giving, small gifts and leadership giving, among others. I interviewed and wrote every article, and all those I spoke to gave the same reason for their gift: they wanted to help in some way and they felt the act of giving enhanced their own life. One donor told me that his philosophy about philanthropy is, “ to give until it hurts, and then give some more.” He explained that even when the gifts got big and he had to think hard and soul search about the level of the ask, whenever he finally made the gift it felt amazing.
I think about the evolution of my own desire for a life of substance, and over the years it has included grand plans to travel the world, achieve a level of expertise or knowledge, find happiness, peace… I think it must be a wonderful feeling to make a major gift. I have had fantasies for years about who will benefit from my philanthropic giving when I hit the big time. In the meantime, I know that my giving combines with many others gifts my size to make a tremendous impact, and I also take great joy in knowing that my role as a fundraiser offers a view and a partnership of sorts in the others’ philanthropy.
Philanthropy can be part of a person’s substance – one of many factors that contribute to them being made stronger and more robust. That giving, in turn, offers a similar value to missions of organizations and individuals whose lives can be changed through the support of others.