Blogpost: Establishing a Culture of Philanthropic Responsibility

By John Burkhardt

Last week I was in Fort Worth, Texas visiting with an individual who has directed some of his wealth to support colleges and university students in their efforts to learn about the role of philanthropy in U.S. society.  His foundation has provided $100,000 to allow UM students in our ED 769 class to experience both the difficulty and the satisfaction of awarding grants to non-profit groups in our community.

A few weeks ago we completed the semester when that course was offered.  I learned a great deal again this year about how hard it is to give money away wisely.  Most of the students in the seminar (there were 27) had never seen $100,000 in one place, aside from on television perhaps, and I don’t think any of them had previously shared the responsibility to give away that much money.  It made for an exciting challenge, one that prompted many long discussions, differences of opinion, and passionate exchanges.  In short, it had all the elements for a wonderful seminar, although it came complete with a bit more drama than we usually experience.

The program that makes this possible includes funding for similar courses at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Texas, Northwestern and a handful of other institutions.  It reflects a generous perspective on the donor’s part, but one that is grounded in a strategic vision too.  I believe he has identified an important challenge that we face in preparing college graduates for roles in their communities and in our country.  For all the claims we make about developing citizen-leaders through higher education, we may be ignoring one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who honestly want to “make a difference” through their lives.

Becoming an educated person in the early 21st century encompasses a tradition of identifying, describing, categorizing and analyzing social and technical problems that is in many ways a 19th century orientation.  Just as scientists once sorted natural phenomenon into orderly groups (remember those kingdoms, phyla and species?) and greatly sophisticated our understanding of why things went wrong, we still spend a great deal of a college education teaching students how to “problematize” the world they live in.

Recognizing that there are serious problems that confront us is an important step toward assuming responsibility and can place us on a path toward leadership.  But if responsibility starts with knowledge it must carry beyond awareness of problems toward lifelong patterns of commitment and action.  We can respond by volunteering, serving and through many other forms of personal involvement.  But most of us will also have opportunities to address problems through acts of philanthropy—big and small—and to work in concert with others who have resources available to support change where it could needed.  Understanding philanthropy, its many forms, knowing its limitations and its potential, is a critical aspect of preparing to take a role in society as an educated individual.

We are often reminded that those of us who complete a college degree will earn an additional $1 million over their lifetimes.  Graduates of schools like Michigan may earn several times that much over their lifetimes.  Indeed most of what we earn passes through our hands all too quickly, but even so we often are in positions to make philanthropic decisions through service on community boards, in managing an inheritance, or in deciding where to direct our holiday giving.  Even if our lives don’t permit us wealth to provide independent support to good causes, there is power, utility and influence in being able to separate charity from strategic philanthropy.  There is a lifelong benefit to those who can distinguish between effective social investments and palliative efforts. For anyone who truly wants to make a difference with their lives, there is something to learn here.  It is every bit as important to protect the well-founded belief that the problems we face, while complicated to the point of intimidation, can be addressed with carefully designed strategies, thoughtful investment, and determined efforts.




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