Much Given, Much Expected

“To whom much is given much is expected. This biblical passage from the Gospel of Luke conveys a belief that I and many of my African American family and friends hold dear. Many of us recall a defining moment or childhood lessons that influence our philanthropic giving.”

I’ve opened with these lines from Giving Back to say thanks to many of the people who gave their time, talent and treasure during the development of the book. The word cloud below is yet another way of giving props….as was done here too.

Watch [Philanthropy Reframed]

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

New voices. New vibe. New video. New view on philanthropy.

Watch our new 2.5-minute video trailer for the Giving Back Project and its centerpiece publication, Giving Back. The project is a civic engagement campaign comprising artful stories and photography that reframe portraits of philanthropy.

For too long, philanthropy has been narrowly defined by great wealth and large monetary gifts. Prevailing stories about giving often exclude generous everyday people and feed false notions about who can give and make a difference. Changing the world requires us to rethink and reframe philanthropy.

The Giving Back Project brings new content and fresh approaches to include a wider slice of society in philanthropy. Through our publications, multimedia presentations and interactive community forums, we lift up inspiring stories of everyday givers.

  • Literary arts
  • Photography
  • Spoken-word poetry
  • Oral history
  • Music
  • Digital media
  • Social networking

No matter the medium, our stories promote the belief that we all can and should give back, no matter our age or our circumstances. We celebrate generous gifts of time, talent and treasure and venture to reclaim the root meaning of philanthropy, love of humanity.

The Giving Back Project aims to ignite a movement of conscientious philanthropy by empowering a generation to recognize its power and responsibility to give back.

Join us…and get your give on!

An Irresistible Call

In pursuit of a dream, have you ever struggled to quiet the disquieting? Worries rise and can deafen precisely when you lean in to listen to your heart. Below is a paragraph from “Author’s Notes” in Giving Back about tuning out the noise to write my book.

At times, doubts would swarm with stinging questions about whether the vision was attainable. I questioned whether I was up to the sacrifices and risks that seeing it through seemed to require of me. People I spoke with believed in the project; they saw the significance of documenting our stories and producing a socially relevant book. This helped fend off some of my fears. Even with dispiriting episodes, I could never suppress for long the call of these stories.

Full text of “Author’s Notes” transformed into a word cloud

— VF

Lift A Hand

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

“The fragrance always remains in the hand that gives the rose.”

Hands—the image and the word—are rich with symbolism, particularly in the context of giving. Hand out. Hand up. Hand-me-down. Helping hand. Lend a hand. Hand in hand. These are but a few of the many common expressions containing the word “hand” that connote philanthropic concepts and stir a broad range of sentiments.

Imagery of human hands feature prominently on the pages and cover of Giving Back. This point of detail was envisioned for the book since its inception. Steering clear of cliché and stale visual concepts was a pivotal aim throughout the project. At the same time, it was important to reinterpret the images that are consciously familiar and also to stir the subconscious with fresh angles on philanthropy.

Evocative photography of leathered hands of the aged, of tiny fingers, of outstretched palms, of clenched fists and of hands gripping a cane, clutching a Bible, dishing out food and braiding hair appear on the book’s pages. Over a third of Giving Back holds images and quotes centered on hands.

The photograph shown above is one of my favorites, for many reasons. For starters, I remember the searing summer heat during the photo shoot and the obscene volume of sweat spilt as four of us labored to get the picture. Then there’s the photograph itself. Its composition. Its dark and light elements. So delicate. So rich in subtlety. Precisely imprecise. For me, for at least this moment, it conveys the unpredictable and utterly splendid ways God’s light can fall upon us and guide our work.

A line from Ecclesiastes counsels: What your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might. What’s reflected in the handiwork of your good deeds? 

— VF

More The Merrier

Where would the Giving Back Project be without the support of organizations that have purchased  Giving Back in bulk? While that’s a rhetorical question, I know for certain that such orders have not only accelerated individual sales but also expanded the geographical reach of the book and boosted awareness about our campaign to “reframe portraits of philanthropy.”

Nearly a dozen groups have purchased 10 or more copies of Giving Back to give as a gift to trustees, donors, youth, award recipients, special guests at events and other stakeholders of the organization—it’s a memento of appreciation and inspiration that literally gives back.

We’re grateful to every organization that has bought multiple books. Those that have purchased 50 or more books hold a special distinction. And thus, here’s a bulk delivery of gratitude and a shout-out to the Giving Back Project’s most generous book buyers, which are listed below.

We cannot thank you enough!

Rebuilding Our Communities, Inside Out

“The messages in your book and the work of the Community Investment Network are critical today. Local African American donors and others are replicating the early investments that our ancestors made in building the United States. 21st century technological innovations and the resulting economic shifts obligate us to rebuild our communities from the inside out. We must all invest in places where we live, work and worship—the places that we love.

“Thank you for reminding each of us that strong democratic communities require all to give time, talent and money. Our families, institutions and communities are depending on us.”

— Linetta J. Gilbert, co-leader of The Declaration Initiative and longstanding CIN supporter, in response to my recent interview on The Tavis Smiley Show about Black philanthropy and Giving Back.

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Shifting from ‘Me’ to Movement of Conscious Philanthropy

Listen to my recent conversation with Tavis Smiley about Black philanthropy and Giving Back on his nationally syndicated radio program, The Tavis Smiley Show.

During the interview, Tavis questions whether any hope remains in rekindling a spirit of compassion and generosity in a culture that seems to be degenerating and glorifying a me-and-mine mentality. Hear my response . . . and then share yours here.

The book Giving Back is a centerpiece of the Giving Back Project, which aims to ignite a movement of conscientious philanthropy by empowering a generation to recognize their power and responsibility to give back.

The interview airs on The Tavis Smiley Show through Friday, May 25. Tune in and then share the link and your thoughts. — VF

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Reason and Rhymes

April is National Poetry Month and I’m taking the occasion to acknowledge and thank the poets—those in spirit and those in practice—who contributed important concepts and content to Giving Back.

Q | Photography by Charles W. Thomas Jr.

While wrapping up the book’s content during spring 2010, about a year and a half before the public release of Giving Back,  I asked a couple of close friends who are ardent readers to review and provide feedback on my near-final manuscript.

One friend in particular (we’ll call her ML) commented that it would be great if the book contained more than prose. To paraphrase, as I recollect it, she said, “You should include some kind of stream-of-consciousness, free-flowing, spoken word-like narratives.”

Huh? Hmm? What?!?!

After trudging through a litany of Herculean tasks, which included years of carefully collecting and curating content and meticulously crafting stories, that bit of feedback was far from well received.

Weaving in poetry was a valid suggestion—if fact, a brilliant one—but the protracted book-writing process had left me so thin-skinned that ML’s otherwise benign comment felt like a brutal assault on my long labor of love. “Apparently, what I’ve slaved to create is insufficient,” I sulked. Perplexed and seething in silence, I never asked ML to explain her rationale nor did I share my irritation.

Though pouting is admittedly an unflattering trait, the emotional churning served to heat up my creative juices and resulted in potent new content. (Call it poetic injustice :-)) ML’s casual suggestion had fueled this overachiever’s resolve: If she thinks poems are needed, then poems she will have! I promptly reached out to one poet and reached within for the other.

“Q”, a highly regarded poet and friend, had developed a spoken-word piece on philanthropy years prior for an event I organized. At my request, Q polished up the poem in writing, titled it and kindly submitted it for the book project. Entrancing as well as enlightening, “Full Circle” aptly closes Giving Back.

Ava, the other poet, seemed to come out of nowhere with a couple of spot-on new poems for the book. Timid initially, Ava and her poetry evolved, both becoming surprisingly bolder with encouragement from my friends and guidance from Q.

“Truth Be Told,” a poem expressly written by Ava for Giving Back, opens the book and has become a crowd-pleaser at book events. Even so, there was a time when I questioned whether her work was a good fit. Emphatic feedback from ML, Q and another friend, RG, made it clear that Ava’s poem merited not only inclusion but also prominent placement in Giving Back.

After reading “Truth Be Told,” RG gushed about it and wrote, “I want schoolchildren to read this poem!”

Q emailed a response I treasure most: “Ok . . . so the poem is DOPENESS!!! That last stanza is fiyah!”

I’ll wrap up by finally thanking ML for her discerning critique and by sharing another of Ava’s pieces. This one, haiku that’s featured in Giving Back.

Gave away my soul.

Giving back to get it back

Given what I know.

Ava Wood

Why and how are you giving back with your time, talent and treasure? — VF

Sold Out.

Yep. Due to steady public demand, we’ve sold out the first printing of Giving Back and a second printing is underway. This fact thrills me almost as much as releasing the book in October 2011. (Note: If you want a copy before June, there are still a limited number available at bookstores, online and for specific events.)

Back in December, we realized our supply would run out quicker than anticipated since we were distributing 100 books a week on average. So at the start of 2012, we put brakes on marketing and promoting Giving Back while we scrambled to devise a plan to print at least another 1500 books.

I find it ironic that reaching sold-out status in just months is largely attributed to our not selling out the original vision for the book. It should be noted that the term sellout—as in a betrayal of principles—is one I generally choose to steer clear of. I don’t indulge in second-guessing the motives behind somebody else’s artistic decisions, but I will refer to the term here while reflecting on my own creative experience.

Without benefit of a famous author or a celebrity foreword contributor or well-known faces  in portrait or rich-people stories or a corporate marketing machine or even a commercial publishing deal, Giving Back has nonetheless stirred interest among readers and sold out quickly.

Remarkable sums up what we’ve accomplished. The collective “we” in this instance comprises Charles Thomas and me, members of NGAAP-Charlotte, Casajulie, Buppy Hipster PR and our sponsoring partners, project participants, donors, family, friends and, of course, book buyers. I credit the book’s promising start to an uncompromising stance on compiling stories we knew were worth telling and a dogged pursuit of our vision.

During my 1621-day push to produce Giving Back, every day seemed to hand deliver a temptation to narrow my scope, drop expectations, clip corners…or to just cut myself some slack. Those options certainly looked the easiest and less painful. Actually quitting appeared the sanest choice of all. Despite the pressure, existential struggle and odds, I chose, or better still, surrendered to that which my soul seemed intent to seek.

Gifts that come at inopportune times are still gifts. The mixed fortune of conceiving Giving Back carried an obligation to see it through without underestimating its value. The experience, though brutal as it was at times, showed me how humility, hard work and the hand of a higher source can transform the ethereal into the real. At first sight of the final, hardcover version, my soul sighed and smiled in satisfaction. Giving Back is the perfect manifestation of a beautiful idea gifted to me years prior and stands as a tangible affirmation of my and others’ stewardship.

Truths revealed on the pages of Giving Back are key to it becoming sold out. I gave my best to usher the content into the spotlight and, once there, humanity undeniably shone through the portraits and stories. I cannot sell the idea that publishing a book and pursuing your passions are easy. From the start, my plan lay clear but the path was not. My circumstances while navigating the book’s development swung between circus and chaos. Tight-wire walker, trapeze flyer, lion tamer, fire-eater, juggler and ringmaster, I took on an endless stream of roles for nearly five years to get this book done and eventually did it.

The experience has left me unwilling to judge others who choose a smoother path. I will, however, attest to the joy of being a grateful receiver of gifts, of not selling yourself short and of putting your soul out there to satisfy its search. I found that when I dropped giving up from the options, my gifts—those given and those received—multiplied.  VF

Keen Line of Sight on Philanthropy

Photograph from "Giving Back" | Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Everyday givers from African American communities have an acute line of vision and insightful stories to tell; yet these perspectives are often absent from dialogue and decisions in philanthropy.

Narratives about community and mutuality are woven into Black culture and influence how many people see the world, choose to give and define success.

Through storytelling and photography, Giving Back reveals motivations, reflects proud traditions and relays a wisdom about giving and generosity that has newfound relevance today.

Giving Back gives glimpses of the change we wish to see in the world and provides a springboard for deeper conversations on inclusive and responsive philanthropy. — VF