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National Philanthropy Day: Celebrating Private Action for the Public Good

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Philanthropy has been defined as goodwill to members of the human race. I like that classic definition, but one of my favorites is from a book titled Understanding Philanthropy by Robert L. Payton and Michael P. Moody. It defines philanthropy as private action for the public good.

Philanthropy differentiates itself from business, which is private action for the private good, and government, which is public action for the public good. I like this definition because it reflects the cross-societal nature of philanthropy—all people across all sectors working together to build quality of life.

My first exposure to philanthropy came as a young boy through the Cub Scouts. Community service projects were a vital part of the scouting experience and my Cub Scout pack did a range of volunteer activities such as delivering food, cleaning parks and public lands and visiting elderly neighbors. We were also encouraged to give a portion of our allowance to people in need. These experiences early on in my life were foundational, laying the groundwork for the work I do today with people who are committed to the public good.

Charity—providing immediate relief and support—is important, but successful philanthropy—systemic change to improve lives—is difficult because so many of these issues were created over many decades of poor policy, under-investment and disregard for entire communities and populations. To stem the tide and turn that around is a huge lift that requires philanthropy, business and government working together.

At The Chicago Community Trust, donors are the lifeblood of our work. For more than 104 years, we have partnered with people who care deeply about the Chicago region to help them reach their philanthropic goals. It’s fascinating to work at the Trust because our mission is community-wide, not focused on one particular concern or community but rather issues that will improve the quality of life in metropolitan Chicago. The Trust offers so many ways for donors to connect their philanthropy to impact and I love playing my small part in making that happen.

One of my biggest surprises about the field is how difficult it can be to effect broad social change. I think that charity—providing immediate relief and support—is important but successful philanthropy—systemic change to improve lives—is difficult because so many of these issues were created over many decades of poor policy, under-investment and disregard for entire communities and populations.

To stem the tide and turn that around is a huge lift that requires philanthropy, business and government working together. The philanthropic sector in particular can play a vital leadership role by bringing these different sectors together. At the Trust, our new strategic focus is on closing the racial wealth gap in Chicago and our hope is that many of our donors will join us on this journey.

On National Philanthropy Day, I hope people take the time to reflect on this incredible, vibrant sector in the United States and explore ways in which they can participate. So many people wonder what they can do to help others. There are many things—you can read, watch programming and attend events to become informed about issues in your community. You can spend time with people you normally don’t to learn from each other about personal experiences that impact their worldviews and views of the future. You can volunteer or serve on a board at an array of amazing charitable organizations doing vital work in our region. And you can give money—no matter the amount—because these gifts mean so much to an organization’s ability to operate and serve.

Research has shown that Chicagoans volunteer time and donate money to charitable organizations at a rate much higher than the national average. The Boy Scout motto is: Be Prepared. The author of the motto wrote that to be prepared means, “You are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.” No matter how you define your duty—giving money, volunteering or serving on a board—it makes a difference. It matters to your community.