In response to comments on Are We Talking About Philanthropy Yet? Let me amplify the point of the reiterated, No. The thing I am trying to get across is that giving is a gesture that can be made in many ways: Teaching is giving, a life of service is giving, mentoring a child is giving, to write a work of art is giving, to sacrifice your life for your country is giving. Public service can be giving. Bearing witness under pressure to lie or tell a half truth can be giving. Merely bearing tribulation without complaint can be a gift. When we codify giving as money, we put some givers over others, since some have more to give. Remember the Biblical parable about the givers in the Temple? The one who pleased Jesus most was the widow who gave the equivalent of a penny, but it was all she had.
I think we honor big money givers when we liken their gift to that widow who gave all, or to the inspired work of an artist, or a soldier, fireman, or a nurse, or a community leader, who may have devoted a life to something that the philanthropist supports with no more than one tenth of one percent of net worth.
I backed into the study of philanthropy, looking for something to do with my background in psychology, philosophy and literature while making a career in financial services.
The interesting topic is moral heroism, or inspiration, or ideas or personal gestures that changed the world. The subtopic is philanthropy. That is what I am trying to say, or part of it. If you take moral heroism, existential choice, and dedication to something larger than ourselves as the topic, then we can all be givers, and the highest honors may go to the poorest among us. If we take philanthropy as the topic per se, then the gifts of anyone but the richest will seem insignificant and subordinate.
Beyond that, big money givers are more than big givers and less. They are human beings, citizens, parents, siblings, children. They are patients. They are analysands. They are perhaps civic leaders, softball players, secret writers of lousy poetry. They are flawed creatures with great gifts. They are each many, many things. The gift of money is but one way they express who they are, and become what they might be. To talk to a rich person about philanthropy per se narrows the conversation unduly. The questions are: "Who are you? Who have you been? What would you become? And how? Where next? Whither? With whom? For what purpose? " Through such probing and open conversation, not unlike doing philosophy in the open air with the most successful and potentially dangerous or enlightened citizens of Athens, the giving coach (to use a metaphor from Socrates) becomes the midwife to the givers soul. Now that is hard, because childbirth is hard, and as Socrates intended us to notice, the most august citizens include men, for whom childbirth is a new experience, and especially agonizing. In that self-defining moment, it may turn out that the giver's money is the least of the issues, and that what emerges from the mess of life circumstances, including wealth, is a new life dedicated to an ideal, in which money plays a subordinate role.
To see what this is like, to have this experience as giver or mentor of givers, read, for example, H. Peter Karoff's essays. In one such essay a very wealthy man murmurs, "We are all beggars," including himself. That is the point I am trying to second and amplify. I am writing about Peter's life, work, and example, at The World We Want. The title of the site comes from a new book in which Peter interviews wealthy givers. (I am included in that book, as the odd man out, since my "gift," whatever it might be, is not big money, but like Peter's own gift, or Socrates', that of listening another's words into shape so that their life might follow.) We are gifted givers, each of us, if we rise to the occasion our life presents.