Giving Back Is an Intentional Act
On a weekly basis I am presented with countless opportunities to donate my time and money to aide nonprofits delivering critical services to communities in need. They range from organizations near and dear to my heart (i.e., CAMP Rehoboth and NPR) to progressive causes aligned with my values but that I have yet to support (i.e., Planned Parenthood and the Humane Society).
In my Facebook stream alone, some friends ask me to donate to their favorite charity in lieu of a birthday gift or to help others in need by contributing to a GoFundMe account. Complicating matters are the pleas for help emanating from unplanned crises such as the El Paso and Dayton shootings, or natural disasters like floods and tornadoes.
Given today’s uncertain times one thing has become painfully clear: there are insufficient resources to meet existing needs let alone unforeseen catastrophes. Bridging this gap becomes the responsibility of individuals who have the capacity to support nonprofits large and small who step up when others have not or cannot.
Looking back over time, this role was filled by philanthropists who used their wealth to benefit the common good, the majority of which have been white men. The causes they supported often aligned with their personal interests and philosophies. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most well-known example whose fortune was used to help build more than 1,600 public libraries because he believed they would serve to help “those who help themselves.”
But you do not have to be a millionaire to be a philanthropist. Regardless of income level or education, it is safe to say most Americans are also philanthropic if you have donated to your alma mater, volunteered to clean up a local park, or gave money to a church, synagogue, or mosque. These all qualify as philanthropic acts when you consider the Merriam-Webster definition: “goodwill to fellow members of the human race either” through, “an act or gift, done or made for humanitarian purposes.”
Unfortunately, giving to charity is not an innate value. We learn about the importance of helping others from our family, our church, our school, or because of something that we experienced. This may explain the reasons educational institutions (i.e., your alma mater), human services nonprofits (i.e., a rape crisis center, LGBTQ community centers) and health organizations (i.e., medical research) are among the top recipients of all individual gifts each year.
In terms of what issues are important to each person, it is basic human nature to support causes we are familiar with, where we have a personal connection and that provide services to people like us or who we know. As in other parts of our society, the philanthropic sector has been under scrutiny for its lack of diversity in terms of staff and leadership which many argue impacts where funds are invested in the community. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
As a gay man who came out in the 80s, the AIDS epidemic was my call to action.
Let me set the scene: gay men were coming down with life-threatening illnesses and dying quickly at an alarming rate. Despite repeated pleas from the medical community and patients themselves to the Reagan administration and elected officials to do something, the Federal government basically ignored the situation. Facing a literal life and death situation, grassroots efforts sprang into action raising awareness about the disease and the need for financial resources for medical services because mainstream doctors were refusing to care for these patients for fear of becoming infected themselves.
These grassroots efforts not only created an army of passionate activists and fundraisers but served to galvanize support in Congress and in the scientific community to advocate for government funding for research into life-saving treatments.
More recently, funding cuts to Planned Parenthood combined with increased legislation restricting a woman’s right to choose has activated a new generation of concerned citizens. While it does not require a scourge like AIDS to take action, it helps to understand why people choose to get involved.
Throughout my life, I have been engaged in supporting nonprofits either as a volunteer or a donor, and one thing I have learned is that one of the main reasons people do not get involved is because they were not asked. The degree to which they act on the request also depends on whether they believe in the mission and their desire to make a difference. Hopefully, it is also because it makes them feel good. I know it does for me.
Making change happen is an intentional act. This can come in the form of volunteering for Sundance, or becoming a member of CAMP Rehoboth, especially if you want to ensure the staff and leadership is aware of the diverse needs in your community. I hope you will help me spread the word. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality and opportunity in the workplace and the community.