By Rafia Khader and Abby Rolland
In July, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy staff members and student workers participated in a civic reflection workshop led by Dr. Elizabeth Lynn, founding director of the Center for Civic Reflection and special projects consultant for Lake Institute on Faith & Giving.
What is civic reflection? Ph.D. student Christina Eggenberger explains it as “a way for people to discuss big ideas around a brief, shared reading or image. It really allows people to bring their own experiences to a conversation through the shared context of that brief reading or image.”
Dr. Lynn asked participants to read a short story by Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda about a gift he received as a child, and one he gave in return.
Reflecting on our experiences participating in the discussion, we identified three lessons that not only apply to our work in philanthropy, but to anyone studying and working in this field.
- Expanding the parameters of philanthropy
As a school, we often hear Robert Payton and Michael Moody’s definition “voluntary action for the public good” as the best way to describe philanthropy.
As we read and considered this text though, we all agreed that the gift of this worn, well-loved toy sheep from Neruda’s unknown, unseen, and quiet neighbor was an act of philanthropy.
As far as we know, the gift was voluntary. However, the boy could have been forced to give the toy to Neruda. Maybe the neighbors were new and the boy’s parents strongly encouraged him to give the toy away. He did, but did he do so voluntarily? That we don’t know, and for Neruda, it doesn’t seem to matter.
In addition, did this act benefit the public good? Most likely not. Only Neruda and the other boy benefited from this exchange of beloved possessions. The public good, however defined, is not impacted in any way.
And yet, it was clear from Neruda’s recollection that this was indeed an act of philanthropy, in that it was a generous act. This prompts us to ask: how does one then define philanthropy? Should it be defined more broadly, so that philanthropy and generosity are used interchangeably? Is a simple act of kindness considered philanthropy? If so, is there a time when a kind action is not considered philanthropy? What if that action comes with an expectation of a return action? Would the gesture be less generous?
Furthermore, action suggests an activity that can be measured in a moment (or moments) of time. There is a foreseeable endpoint to an action. What of philanthropy that is not so easily measurable because it extends across one’s lifetime?
Since that mutual exchange of cherished possessions many years ago, Neruda says he “left (his) words on the door of so many people who were unknown to (him).” In this situation, Neruda’s actions are not limited to a certain time frame. That philanthropic act that he witnessed as a boy served as an inspiration for him as a writer and he sought to leave his words as gifts to his readers, many of whom would remain unknown to him. In this way, philanthropy seems to be more of a way of life than one specific action or gesture.
If a kind action or way of living is what comprises philanthropy, how do we define it? Can it even be defined? As an academic field, philanthropic studies will naturally converge around a definition, as it has, but by limiting the parameters, are we leaving certain ways of being and doing out of our scope? Where does—and can—the root meaning of the word, i.e. “love of humanity” fit in?
This exercise leaves us with more questions than answers. In fact, we don’t think there’s a simple answer. It is our hope that with the interdisciplinary focus adopted by the school, we can come a bit closer to the vision of philanthropy alluded to in Neruda’s story.
- Philanthropy (and generosity) is everywhere
Neruda was not an expert in philanthropy. He did not study it and did not professionally practice it. (We don’t know how charitable Neruda was, but he did not work for a nonprofit during his lifetime.) However, if you take an expansive notion of philanthropy, he clearly informally practiced it, and then wrote how powerful the experience was for him.
It goes to show that philanthropy appears everywhere. It’s not strictly a discipline or even a way of living. It’s a part of human nature.
In other words, it’s a core emotion or way of being for us as human beings. We can’t look at it in a silo, or separate it from who we are as humans.
When we think about philanthropy, we often think about reports and missions of nonprofits, but very little do we think of literature. Prior to this civic reflection activity, we would not have approached a short story and analyzed it through the lens of philanthropy. And yet the narrative style of this one-page story showed us the richness of generosity that we often times don’t think of when we “do” philanthropy.
This activity showed that generosity can be found even in short stories, poems and other literary works. Sometimes the human experience is better encapsulated in narrative form. And if philanthropy means “love of humanity,” then literature too ought to be plumbed as a source of philanthropy, as well.
- It’s important to focus on thought and reflection, and not just action, in one’s work
This wasn’t solely based on the Neruda reading itself, but the act of talking about it. We pondered how often busy working individuals have time for reflection in their eight (or more) hour days. While we complete the projects or work we need to do, do we think about the overall impact of our work? How can we strive to make it better if we’re just checking off boxes on the list? Thinking creatively and vigorously about the role we play in an organization and how we impact the wider world and vice versa is important to remember as we go about our day-to-day activities.
Marilyn Kuhn, COO, says she enjoyed a meeting where the goal was to “listen, reflect, think, share and learn.”
“There was no ‘to-do list’ at the end, but I felt like I gained appreciation for others’ perspectives, as well as clarity of my own thoughts, on subjects important to me – giving and receiving gifts and authenticity.”
Curtis Kester, senior administrative assistant at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, also emphasized the importance of “stepping back.”
“To be able to participate in this reflection was to remind me of the value and purpose of what we do as a school. In our discussion, I was amazed and inspired by the diversity of ideas and thoughts that were brought forth.
“Neruda reminds us during the story that when we are impacted by someone that we do not know showing affection, or possibly a generous spirit of another in some way, we are then reminded of how all living things are connected. I found this to be a motivator for continuing to pursue a life and work that lends itself to developing an increased fondness for the world and others.”
It’s important to do the job that we’re hired to do, but part of that may include thinking about the big picture. In the end, that thinking may produce thoughts or spark ideas that you may not have had before.
As Eggenberger reminds us, “we scratched the surface of gift giving and larger questions of meaning, gratitude, and intentions of the giver and receiver.”
“I really didn’t want the conversation to end,” she says.
Neither did we.