World Pulse

Revolutionary Philanthropy

Kathy LeMay
Posted January 2, 2009 from United States

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.

Comments 9

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Fatima Waziri - Azi
Feb 20, 2009
Feb 20, 2009

A philanthropist gives her widows mite. It is the heart that matters not the size I loved your story. Thank u.

Leela Francis
Apr 27, 2009
Apr 27, 2009

Thanks Kathy!

I love what you are about and I look forward to collaborating our passions to raise change!


May 15, 2009
May 15, 2009

Congratulations for taking the first step. We might often want to do something for the world but we always either wonder what it really is or fear failing. It is however better to fail while trying than to fail to try.

Nov 12, 2009
Nov 12, 2009

it is of good reward to stand and ready to help other because is even God's commandment i love this type of forum

Nov 12, 2009
Nov 12, 2009

it is good to be among God loving people like this because God love people who gives

Jan 28, 2011
Jan 28, 2011

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for your generosity!! You are a HERO!!.

GOD will bless you abandantly for considering the poor.

keep it up!! Teresa

Alma Raymer
Jul 22, 2011
Jul 22, 2011

Thank you Kathy for finding the wisdom and having the knowledge that others seek. As someone from a working-class background who intends to put her life towards giving in one way or another, it is a daunting task - feels like I never have the resources necessary to do so, so why try? There are people who have always told me that in order to give to causes that are important to me, I'm going to have to have a lot of money first, but what they don't understand is that it is more than often those that have the least who give the most - whether in money, time, passion, outreach, or any other number of things.

Thank you. This is what I needed to hear.

Peace, alma

Mar 08, 2012
Mar 08, 2012

Hello Kathy,

When I saw the headline, I was expecting to hear or see something I haven't thought off before, but your article just hit the nail on the head. What we are looking for is right in front of us and we need to appreciate who we are and what we bring to the discourse or movement.

Thanks for writing the piece.

Best wishes, Osai

Mar 25, 2014
Mar 25, 2014

Hi Kathy ..

A fantastic story - I like what you say here, quote:

"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? "

I absolutely agree xxx