My mother spent her life teaching me about making a difference. We went without when I was young—there were times spent in food banks, times we used food stamps. Still, my mother would say, “There is always someone who is worse off. Our job is to help.”
As I got older, I began to read about people who made large gifts to hospitals, museums, and libraries. They seemed to live grand lives in huge, sprawling estates (with wineries!), and I envied them because they could give to help build a better world. Growing up working class in a small mill town, I was sure that in order to make change, you had to have money—and lots of it.
Lying on my twin-sized mattress, wrapped in my Kmart quilt, I could see the headlines that my future funding would bring: “Animals Freed from Zoos” and “Women Elected As Political and Business Leaders at Record Numbers!” I decided that I would make heaps of money so I could give it away. Here’s what foiled me: I didn’t want any of the jobs that would actually make me a philanthropist-sized income.
Even when I began writing checks to support causes, I still didn’t identify as a donor. To me, writing $25, $50, and even $100 checks wasn’t enough to say “I am a philanthropist.” Philanthropy meant big money.
It wasn’t until I turned 31—after 17 years of activism from Maine to Yugoslavia—that I stepped in front of a crowd of 400 at a philanthropy conference and, with my body shaking, named myself a philanthropist. The minute I said it two women jumped from their chairs and cheered. And after my speech, six different women approached me and “came out” as blue-collar kids who were now in the field of philanthropy, trying to find their way. One woman said, “That speech was the permission I needed to make philanthropy my own.”
Philanthropy is not about walking the road someone else has paved. If starting today the 1,000 wealthiest people in the world gave away all their money, they still couldn’t create a world that is just. They may provide the capital to get things started, but it is our collective talents, money, and passion that will hold and sustain this possibility long after their money has been spent. To state that philanthropy is for the affluent implies that only the most financially accomplished can create community. If you give to your capacity or yearn to figure out how to give to your capacity, you are a philanthropist.
Agendas can be set in motion by a handful of influential people or by thousands of influential people. Every great movement has had visible leaders and funders, but it was the millions who sup-ported the cause that made it effective. Labor rights, civil rights, anti-apartheid: None of those took place in a vacuum. People just like you and me sustained these efforts by organizing, letter-writing, boycotting, and caring for those affected by adverse policies. That is philanthropy in action.
The most powerful form of philanthropy shows up as giving at your capacity and then, if you can, stretching a bit. In Mexico City I met a woman who made five pesos a day sweeping streets. She donated one of every five pesos to an orphanage. “They have less than me,” she said. Would anyone say this woman is less a philanthropist because her gift to the orphanage wasn’t one million pesos? She is the very best of philanthropy: inclusive, grassroots, and led by service to the greater good.