Power of Philanthropy

Why You Do What You Do

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My husband and I attended an event several years ago when I noticed a young woman sitting at a picnic table nearby, alone and crying. I walked over to check in, and her story spilled out.

She and her boyfriend had moved there from another state, because they heard a company in town was hiring. He interviewed and had been hired, tentatively, but to secure the position, he had three days to return with steel-toed boots.

The couple had been depending on the boyfriend’s brother for transportation and temporary housing, but the relational situation had gone south, and she was kicked out with nowhere to go.

The three days since the interview had come and gone. The thought came to mind: “What good are bootstraps, if you don’t have boots.” Sadly, the company filled the position before we met them. It’s also possible the employer recognized this would not be the young man’s last soft-skills hurdle.

For those growing up with stable resources, the situation is hard to fathom: “Why would someone do this or that?” “Why not try this or that?” But for those growing up in chaos and instability, this story does not sound unusual at all. It’s just life.

Severed relationships with her family meant it was impossible to have her much-needed Social Security card mailed to her. We brought her home and helped her make stop-gap arrangements over the next few days. She needed her birth certificate, so she could obtain a new Social Security card, so she could receive medical attention, apply for a job, get a place to live, etc. It meant a trip to a different city where the closest Social Security office was located, long waits, new tasks and back again with more information another day. Without transportation and encouragement along the way, it would have been practically impossible.

Making short-term decisions in survival mode was their normal. Living crisis to crisis wasn’t an anomaly, it was expected. Long-term stability was as foreign and frightening a concept as their circumstances may sound to you. Moving on to another town felt familiar—the comfortable thing to do. Taking a long-term approach and putting down roots would have required an enormous leap of faith—one they were not ready to make at the time.

I remember hearing someone ask a group of nonprofit volunteers, “How would you feel if I said, ‘In the next year, I’m expecting you to become a millionaire’?” You could see eyes widen and hear gasps around the room. “What’s wrong?” he said. “Why couldn’t you? People have done it.” The emotions were palpable: anxiety, insecurity, a sense of what it would feel like to be expected to do the “impossible.” For some people, just locating a Social Security card can feel impossible.

His question to the group was meant to evoke empathy, but it was also unsettling. Then he said this: “Now, what if I told you three individuals, who all made their first million in a year, have volunteered to meet with you regularly, assist you with insights and practical help and give encouragement along the way … would that change anything? And what if they were committed to your success? How would that feel?” Sighs of relief. Intuitively, people knew having someone in your corner, cheering you on, makes all the difference—even when the task seems impossible.

In the hustle and bustle of fundraising, it’s good to be reminded why you do what you do. It’s important for donors, fundraisers and nonprofit staff members to be given an emotional touchpoint, now and again, amidst all the doing.

Writing checks, raising money and making sure programs and services run efficiently can be tedious and time consuming, but it is far from routine. It is the power of philanthropy to do the impossible.

Denise Rhoades
Denise Rhoades

Vice President of Communications

St. Augustine, Fla.


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