Thursday, December 10, 2009

Become a Philanthropist with a Mission

How many of you consider yourselves a philanthropist? The word conjures up super elite icons like Bill Gates, Oprah and Warren Buffet. However, the true definition of philanthropist is "lover of humanity." It is simple kindness. Bottom line, anyone who cares enough about others to give their time, attention and energy IS a philanthropist.

'Tis the season for giving: a few coins into the Salvation Army bucket, cans for the soup kitchen, extra toys for the hospital, or supplies for the troops. Local and national non-profits send out their appeals this time of year to coincide with year end tax deductions. Ever stopped to really think about what charities mean the most to you and why? Often holiday giving is closely tied with guilt or obligation, as many feel they aren't giving enough, and the whole experience is less than Ho-Ho-Ho.

What is the difference between giving money to a cause you barely know, vs. opening your wallet for a friend who can't cover her grocery bills in line, or running a race for your mother who survived breast cancer? The impact is greater when our personal investment is higher.

I had an opportunity to attend a workshop called "Philanthropy with Passion and Purpose" by Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- a proprietary program to help individuals share, learn and discuss how personal values connect to philanthropic mission and actions. Who would think a bank would offer a quasi personal growth workshop? It was a fascinating process, and I was truly inspired.

Claire Costello is the National Foundation Executive for Bank of America Merrill Lynch Philanthropic Management, and explained why having a mission statement for you values and causes is so important. "Figuring out what you are passionate about, helps you give the way you live," she said. "By developing a personal credo for yourself it affects everything; the way you raise your kids, the friends you make, the business deals you conduct, and how you give your money away."

The process begins with an exploration of your values. What guides the decisions you make in life, and what values drive you? Examples of common values include loyalty, independence, honesty, excellence, diversity, community, spirituality, respect, and so on. Grab a piece of paper and jot down three or four personal values that really resonate with you.

Next, think about the issues that catch your attention, stir your passion or call you to action. Is it conservation and the environment, healthcare, education, science & technology, domestic violence or civic engagement? Again, take that sheet of paper and identify a couple of issues that have deep meaning for you.

Finally, the values and causes you have identified are combined into a formative mission statement of your philanthropy -- stating what you stand for, who you want to impact, and how to accomplish it. Think this is easy? It is actually a challenging and profound experience. I highly recommend trying this with your partner, group of close friends, or as a family exercise.

"Once you begin this process, there is a point of no return," said Costello. "Most people are reactive in their giving, and is has little meaning. If you give based on what you care about, there is much greater personal fulfillment." Aligning values and issues creates a powerful incentive to make a difference, and keep making a difference. It also establishes a graceful way to bow out of requests for causes that are not on the list.

For example, if I identified "family and community" as my top values, with "youth education" as top causes, donating to a startup biotech would not be nearly as fulfilling as helping build and support a Read to Grow program, sponsoring a child to go to school in Africa or mentoring a child once a month as the best investments of my time and money.

How can you express your philanthropic mission statement in a depressed economy? Here are three suggestions:

Writing a check is one way. Many of us have money we spend mindlessly -- a pair of shoes here, latte there, dinner out with wine and dessert -- need I go on? If conservation is your key issue, and loyalty is a high value, choose an eco friendly or green cause, and carve out a small amount of money to give to them each month.

The second way is Time. Volunteering is invaluable -- be a coach, mentor, or helping hand to the causes that represent your deepest commitments. A consistent allotment of time helps the organization to know they can count on you, and often becomes a lovely blossom in the daily grind.

The third is through Advocacy. "In tough economic times, we can still make an impact by simply talking about the causes we believe in and raising awareness, whether it is at a book club, meeting or at work," said Costello. "Sharing your passion can potentially enlist a new donor, or a new volunteer."

Next week, I will highlight a few organizations that offer a variety of causes to engage, so get that "Mission Statement of Philanthropy" going this week, and let me know how it goes. If you have one now, I'd love to hear it in the comments below.

Helene Robbins is the Chair of the Community Fund for Women & Girls and a Vice President at Wells Fargo Private Bank, and helped organize the event I attended. She reflected on the deep generosity Americans share, when a cause is dear to our hearts.

"On September 10, 2001, there was no reason to raise millions of dollars for the survivors of 9/11," she said. "The money that poured in, and volunteers that arrived in droves, were for a cause that literally did not exist the day before."

A crisis brings us together. For many out there, this holiday season IS a crisis. Millions are losing their homes, and more Americans are without jobs than ever. Whether it is time, money or advocacy -- give the way you live.