The Thing About Philanthropy

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From an exhibition of The Soul of Philanthropy, a text vinyl on gallery window that overlooks a neighborhood streetscape. Photo credit: Valaida Fullwood

Reframing portraits of philanthropy. Surprising to many, seemingly heretical to some, this idea fuels my imagination and writing. Over a decade ago, I began exploring multiple facets of philanthropy, particularly traditions of giving among African Americans. Struck by what seemed a whitewashing of mainstream philanthropy, which too often centers on financial wealth and whiteness, I was compelled to write about and lift up the unsung generosity of people of color as well as folks of modest means and all socioeconomic levels. This requires a modern reclamation of philanthropy—in meaning, in imagery and in practice.

Examining the root meaning of a word unlocks understanding. Greek in origin, philanthropy translates as “love of humanity.” Over centuries, the word has evolved in connotation and, today, is applied to activity ranging from individual and family practices to institutional grant-making to corporate social responsibility to global impact investing. Philanthropy, when interpreted broadly, can encompass a wide scope of beliefs and take many forms. Even so, most Americans point to only a sliver of this activity, largely because the quantity of dollars has come to eclipse the love of humanity as a defining feature of philanthropy.

The decades around the turn of the 20th century saw the rise of industrial magnates such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, whose exploits and enterprises amassed great fortunes. Their extraordinary financial donations to myriad causes and institutions contributed to the whittling down of ideas about philanthropy. Today, for many, philanthropy is synonymous with immense financial wealth. While but one facet, philanthropy centered on an abundance of money distorts the full picture.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a much-viewed TED Talk about “the danger of a single story” and the destructive nature of stereotypes when only one story is told and re-told. Troubling to me is philanthropy’s single story, patterned from wealthy white men of a bygone era. It is the story that has dominated the field for over a century and one that too often places Black people solely on the demand side of communal assistance—as only beneficiaries and “those in need.”

And that’s the thing about philanthropy. A far richer picture exists. In fact, studies reveal a striking irony. Black Americans give the highest percentage of discretionary income to philanthropic causes when compared to other racial groups, as reported by W.K. Kellogg Foundation and research of the Urban Institute. Stunningly, Blacks not only fail to receive due recognition, we also are frequently cut from conventional depictions of philanthropists. To add insult to injury, the script is flipped and dishonestly says, “Blacks don’t give” and “they’re looking for handouts.”

This knowledge gave birth to the Giving Back Project, which aims to tell a broader range of American philanthropy stories to restore “love” as the defining force in philanthropy. Expounding on an MLK quote, Bishop Michael Curry said in this now-famous royal wedding sermon: There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love.

Sharing this belief, I choose to frame philanthropy around the human factor and the powerful force of love, instead of money alone. In deconstructing the Greek translation, my re-interpretation is “love of what it means to be human.” Broad and inclusive, this frame applies to the writing and photography of the Giving Back Project, which includes my book Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists and the multimedia exhibit The Soul of Philanthropy.

Reclaiming the root meaning increases the breadth of philanthropic possibilities and expands whose stories can be told, celebrated and praised as exemplary. It’s a matter of training our eyes on the humanity of the beneficiary and the benefactor, too. To imply dollars are unimportant is not the point. This mind shift instead relegates the gift (whether money, time or talent) in elevation of the human spirit and human impulse to love.

Re-centering love reveals the essence of philanthropy. Without genuine concern, deep understanding and profound empathy for people, what’s in a check alone? In telling stories of African American philanthropy, this lens is particularly incisive. That’s because many of our philanthropic traditions were forged during times of scarcity and our motivations borne of oppression. The atrocity of slavery and unjust vestiges, like an endemic wealth gap, have failed to diminish our instinct to give. It is instead enlivened. Our stories of philanthropy remind all Americans that philanthropy is deeper than your pockets.

Black giving matters. Counter-narratives to American philanthropy’s single story are crucial for several reasons. First, it’s hard to be what you can’t see, as Marian Wright Edelman puts it. Without authentic representation and abounding stories of Black philanthropists in mainstream media and the public sphere, younger generations are susceptible to stale narratives. They may never come to know the proud traditions that have shaped our communities and country. Second, because the humanity of Black people is routinely challenged—in media portrayals, daily interactions and episodes throughout history—when reframed, philanthropy affirms it. A final point: For Black people, nurturing and strengthening philanthropy, for us and by us, is an imperative because our liberation cannot rest merely on the philanthropy of others. Emboldened by the single story, generosity flowing from unchecked bias, misguided ideas and momentary interest wields little power to affect meaningful social change.

To say the American philanthropy scene has a racial diversity problem is to assert a fact so conspicuous it would seem a waste of breath to voice it. Despite studies, diversity and inclusion initiatives and more studies, too many charitable institutions cling to the values and imagery of the single story. This at a time when the country is growing visibly more racially and ethnically diverse. The resistance to change results in a string of unsurprising headlines. Below are but a few recent ones.

Cropping out a wide spectrum of donors, volunteers and leaders because they don’t fit a narrow narrative is, indeed, dangerous and also telling. Curious, that a sector built on ideals of “love of humanity” struggles to acknowledge the value and humanity of people of color.

Blacks are the most philanthropic racial group in America, and yet most leaders and institutions in the field find the inclusion and engagement of Black people optional or, sadly, debatable. Contemporary issues and communities are too complex to dismiss swaths of givers, seasoned activists and prospective allies. Re-imagining American philanthropy and bringing about change in today’s world requires shifts in perspective, motivation and approach. To fail to do so is to squander an opportunity to bridge historical gaps and transform lives and communities for the duration of the 21st century.

In the same vein as the Movement for Black Lives, Black Philanthropy Month is an assertion that Black giving matters amid a preponderance of messages attempting, and too often succeeding, to convince us otherwise. A campaign established in 2011 and observed every August, Black Philanthropy Month promotes “informing, inspiring, involving and investing in Black philanthropic leadership.”

Disrupting philanthropy’s single story extends beyond August. Global in scope, a movement is underway to acknowledge, study, celebrate and strengthen African-descent giving in all its forms. In addition to the Giving Back Project and Black Philanthropy Month, a myriad of start-up and long-running organizations and initiatives are advancing the movement. These include the newly launched Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy at Indiana University, Young Black and Giving Back Institute, African Diaspora Philanthropy Advisor Network, Pan African Women’s Philanthropy Network, ABFE, blogs and social media platforms like the groundbreaking BlackGivesBack.com, and scores of Black giving circles and collective giving groups.

While slow on matters of race, American philanthropy has begun to reflect some insight on the plurality of giving cultures, as recognized with Jewish philanthropy and women’s philanthropy. The Black philanthropy movement is pressing for accelerated progress from inside and outside mainstream structures. My aspiration in this work is specifically to illuminate the vastness of beliefs, values, histories and mindsets that shape how and why people give. Consciously, re-centering philanthropy on love provides space for all of our stories and inspiration for everyone.

No matter your background or race, take a deep look at what motivates your giving. August observances of Black Philanthropy Month offer opportunities to learn, connect and engage with a cross-section of people. Seeing your community with fresh eyes, and then contributing to it with new understanding and in ways centered on love is work you can actually initiate at any time.

Come to see philanthropy differently. That’s the tagline for The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit, and it precisely expresses the thing I hope for you.

— VF


Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida Fullwood brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer and project strategist. She is a founding member of Charlotte’s New Generation of African American Philanthropists giving circle, author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists and innovator for The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit, which is traveling the country. You can follow her writing and pursuits via @ValaidaF and valaida.com.

 

Seeing Differently

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The Giving Back Project was conceived of 11 years ago for the express purpose of “reframing portraits of philanthropy”. Today both the pop-up edition and the comprehensive version of The Soul of Philanthropy are traveling the country and stimulating new conversations and collaboration among wide-ranging groups.

Our latest short film Deeper Than Your Pockets features foundation heads and community leaders who have hosted past exhibitions. It helps make the case for the exhibit and affirms its value to philanthropy, community building and Black culture.

Watch to hear their stories!

Three weeks ago, The Soul of Philanthropy, Pop-Up, Abridged Edition was featured at Durham’s Carolina Theatre during Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration, which was convened by UNC-Chapel Hill.

After a spectacular, three-month run, the Columbia, SC exhibition came to a close on May 6.  Thank you Richland Library, Women Engaged (W.E.) Giving Circle, and Central Carolina Community Foundation for your visionary leadership and thoughtful approaches as co-presenters of the exhibition.

Announcements of new exhibitions in the South, along the Mid-Atlantic and across the Midwest are coming soon. These exhibitions and related public programs promote understanding and inclusion and are working to reshape 21st-century philanthropy.

 Come to see philanthropy differently.

Y’all Betta Go

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Another exhibition of The Soul of Philanthropy is coming to an end today.

It’s been a spectacular three-month run of the Columbia, SC exhibition at Richland Library.  The newly renovated library has provided a spacious, gorgeous and graciously inviting setting for the the public to engage with the exhibition and related programs.

I’m grateful to Women Engaged (W.E.), Central Carolina Community Foundation and Richland Library for partnering to present the exhibit and to initiate substantive work that is shifting dynamics and building relationships for the long-term benefit of communities in South Carolina’s Midlands.

If you’re in or near Columbia, all I can say, before it closes, is: Y’all Betta Go!

 

Help us bring The Soul of Philanthropy to your community by sharing our videos, photos, and blog posts to spread the word. #getyourgiveon

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‘Commendable but…’

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Today the world remembers and praises the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Every exhibition of  The Soul of Philanthropy features his words prominently to keep bright the flame of justice and love and to guide our paths toward the beloved community.

The Atlanta exhibition earlier this year provided an extraordinary opportunity to feel the potency of his legacy and our collective responsibility to carry the torch forward. Watch the short film below from the exhibit opening at Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue Research Library.

#MLK50Forward

Love, Soul, Legacy and Responsibility

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You’re invited to the Columbia, South Carolina opening celebration of Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited, a multimedia exhibition dedicated to sharing the tradition of African American philanthropy.

Come to see philanthropy differently.

R.S.V.P. here.

 

Love, Leadership and Justice

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Atlanta exhibition opens on the cusp of yearlong commemorations of
MLK’s profound messages and legacy, 50 years after his death
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Happening Now >>> THE GIVING SEASON

Just for you! Thanksgiving food for thought, a fresh crop of photos, new film and an abundance of gratitude


The Atlanta exhibition of The Soul of Philanthropy opened November 1st with a burst of energy and excitement, further kindling powerful ideas and ushering infinite possibilities for the future of Black philanthropic leadership, propelled from the South.

The exhibit’s stories, themes and imagery are timely and resonant as Atlanta and the nation prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death and celebrate his enduring legacy throughout 2018.

Watch Love, Leadership and Justice from Atlanta’s VIP reception and exhibition ribbon-cutting. It’s our newest short film in a series from the Giving Back Project, featuring sights and sounds from exhibitions of The Soul of Philanthropy.

Come to see philanthropy differently.


“The future of philanthropy is not about generosity, it is about justice.​”     

— Darren Walker, president of Ford Foundation



Presented by Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, in partnership with Hammonds House Museum. Exhibited at Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture & History. November 1, 2017 – January 22, 2018

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southern  legacy  truth   vision   future

 

Watch >>> Fresh, New Film, released just in time for Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

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Film and photography about the exhibition by Sino Chum

Bring The Soul of Philanthropy to your city! Contact us today to learn more.

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Tale of Two Cities

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Atlanta panel discussion during Black Philanthropy Month, leading up to the exhibit’s opening

You’d be hard pressed to find two American cities any more geographically and demographically disparate than Portland, Oregon and Atlanta, Georgia. And yet, one thing they have in common is their commitment to to host the comprehensive, multimedia version of The Soul of Philanthropy. Following the IMLS grant-funded exhibit tour, managed by Johnson C. Smith University during 2015 and 2016, these cities are the first in the country to mount exhibitions and lead civic engagement aimed at reframing philanthropy for greater inclusiveness and lasting impact.

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The road from Portland to Atlanta opens a world of possibilities

Vibrant big cities, both Portland and Atlanta benefit from prominent philanthropic families, businesses and foundations. Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that groups in each city would be intrigued by The Soul of Philanthropy, which invites people to see philanthropy differently. That is, come to know that philanthropy is deeper than your pockets.

The Portland exhibition, presented by MRG Foundation at Concordia University, opened at the start of this year and ended late March. The Atlanta exhibition, presented by Hammonds House Museum, is sponsored by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and several other groups and individual donors. The exhibition will open at Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in November 2017. Above is a photo from an early program in Atlanta; below is a photo collage from the Portland exhibition.

 

 

Since the inception of the Giving Back Project in 2007, I, along with Charles Thomas, aimed to create a body of work that would transcend race and place. Charlotte, North Carolina has been the epicenter of the project because that’s where our giving circle is based and where we each live and have formed relationships over the majority of our lives. Even so, we aspired to craft stories and release photography, so soulful and true, they’d resonate broadly and tap deeply at the core of people any and everywhere. I used to say, “I want people in Phoenix to see themselves and people they know in these stories and images.”

Ten years into this project and six years after the first printing of Giving Back, seeing sustained interest in the book nationwide and overseas, too, has been gratifying. Proving relevant and timeless, the book continues to sell steadily and, having again sold out, is presently being printed for the fourth time; over 200 books are now on backorder. It’s truly the book that keeps giving!

When the exhibit was announced in 2014 and opened at Johnson C. Smith University, it also began attracting attention and inquiries from coast to coast, including at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Leaders in Portland and Atlanta were among the first to express interest in the exhibit.

Three thousand miles stretch between Portland and Atlanta. The distance between their histories and demographics is wide as well, yet hosting The Soul of Philanthropy bridges these communities. It has provided space for uncommon collaborations, honest conversations and new insights, offering lasting benefit to both places.

Situated in the Pacific Northwest, Portland boasts a hipster reputation as a progressive, socially conscious city, which belies its racist history. Oregon enacted a shameful ban of Black people during periods of the 19th and 20th centuries. Generations later, Portland consequently stands labeled “the Whitest City in America,” because 78 percent of its population identifies racially as White. At seven percent, Black residents comprise a small fraction of the community.

Conversely, Atlanta is a cultural and commercial center of the Atlantic Southeast. A majority of its residents are African American, earning it the reputation of a “Black mecca”. While Oregon forbade Blacks from moving to the state until the 1920s, clear across the country, Georgia depended on the enslavement and exploitation of Black people well into the 20th century. At opposite corners of the U.S., both cities have legacies that can, at times, thwart or even pervert philanthropic efforts today.

The Soul of Philanthropy is a vehicle for communities to explore and celebrate multiple giving traditions, to learn about an array of philanthropic tools and strategies, and to break through barriers to inclusiveness. Even with vast differences in history and population, philanthropic leaders in Portland and in Atlanta have found value in engaging in vital community building through the exhibit. Whether Black, White, Latino, American Indian, Asian American, Middle Easterner, Pacific Islander, or any cultural roots, the stories, photography and themes of The Soul of Philanthropy hold relevance. After a decade, Charles and I have seen firsthand the ways our work persists and sustains significance and resonance in a complicated field and often misunderstood topic.

First Portland and soon Atlanta are reframing portraits of philanthropy and coming to see philanthropy differently. If America’s “Whitest city” and “Black mecca” have found value in this crucial work, there is ample room for cities in between to do the same.

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Wednesday and Every Day

Carnegie Wednesday Wisdom

I uttered the words “Philanthropy is deeper than your pockets” in short film about the Giving Back Project last month. I say it often. Somehow the folks at Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy stumbled upon those words and then posted a #WisdomWednesday tweet. Sweet!

The Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy is bestowed each year, since 2001, by the Carnegie family of institutions. The award recognizes outstanding philanthropists who reflect the values of the legendary Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie and his philosophy of giving. More quotable wisdom and words of inspiration for me are the late Mr. Carnegie’s words: Do real and permanent good in this world.

Oh Snap!

During our Washington, DC exhibition at the 2017 National Conference of the Association of African American Museums, an intrigued hotel attendant would stroll by regularly and gaze over at our installation. His preoccupation persisted the first few days. Eventually, he ventured into our exhibit space to inquire about the topic and to explore close up and more deeply the displays of photos, stories and interactive elements of The Soul of Philanthropy. And then he shared his story.

Years prior in his native Somalia, he had been on a boat that capsized and sank. While dozens of passengers perished, he was one of only nine survivors rescued by a passing ship. Since that day he said he’s been thankful and always gives back because he was helped once and was saved.

Later, without any our prompting, Nasir wrote his story on the exhibit’s blackboard.

Giving Voice

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Introducing the Black Philanthropy Month 2017 Poster

For the first time, a Black Philanthropy Month poster was commissioned to help inspire Black giving and advance our movement to shape 21st century philanthropy.

This inaugural piece was designed by artist Marcus Kiser and is available here free for downloads. The art poster conveys the BPM 2017 theme: Giving Voice to Fuel Change.