I was a new student in the master’s degree program at the Center on Philanthropy in Indianapolis that fall. Syllabi in hand, I was already reading and trying to stay on schedule after many years’ hiatus from school. Although most of my career to that point was in the nonprofit environment, it didn’t take long to realize how little I really knew.
Fortunately, Professor Dwight Burlingame taught P521, the introductory course to philanthropic studies, as he has done every fall for every new in-person master’s student since then, and he quickly became a mentor and then a dear friend. There is very little about philanthropy that Dwight does not know. After all, he edited the three-volume historical encyclopedia, Philanthropy in America (2004), and invited his students, including me, to contribute articles to this publication.
Our class met Tuesday nights. School had been in session for three weeks. And then, on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the world changed forever. The day unfolded, the extent of the tragedy was revealed, and I had to go to class that night.
It is said that each generation remembers exactly where they were when the joy or sorrow of that generation occurred – whether it was when Kennedy was assassinated, landing on the moon, Nixon’s resignation, 9/11, or the more recent massacres at schools around the country. What were we going to talk about in class that night? Would we even have class?
We had class. I still have my syllabus, my notes, and my papers from that class. The topic that day was economic theories of the nonprofit sector, hardly a topic fitting for the day’s tragedy. (For those who remember the class, these are the failures—contract, market, and government—along with a few others.) My recollection is that we did indeed talk about the day’s events but my notes simply state “planes crash into the World Trade Center/Pentagon.”
Two weeks later on September 25 my notes indicate “discussion about giving for WTC; how tragedy fits into civil society.” The class topic that day was Civil Society and Mediating Structures. I truly regret that I did not take notes on the discussion. Rarely does a student have an opportunity to study in such a unique setting how philanthropy unfolds during a tragedy.
By the October 4 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the sector’s primary publication, headlines included “Nonprofit Groups Must Meet the Challenges of a World in Tumult,” “IRS Offers Guidance to Disaster-Relief Charities,” “Online Giving Soars as Donors Turn to the Internet Following Attacks,” and 13 other stories about the philanthropic response to the tragedy. Dr. Burlingame encouraged the students to read the articles and reflect on how they connected to the big themes we learned about in class.
Looking back from the vantage point of 17 years later, I realize that, even as a non-traditional student returning to school, I did not at the time take full advantage of learning or understanding the role of philanthropy in the context of this national tragedy. However, others at the then Center on Philanthropy did and researched the giving and voluntary response to 9/11. Highlights of the report were released in cooperation with the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
I graduated from the Center on Philanthropy in 2003 and have always appreciated the education I received. It changed my life, made me more aware about the large role of the nonprofit sector, not only in times of tragedy, but in all times. I was thrilled to return to the Center in 2005 after a short stint in fundraising to work with the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI). Today, I am the WPI Interim Director and am still learning daily about the fascinating, complex world of philanthropy.
Andrea Pactor is the interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.