Eight years ago I sat down with a friend from college and told her I had just started a job at a philanthropic firm. She laughed and said, “Really? How did you end up in that? You don’t know anyone with money!”
I look back now on that moment so fondly. My friend was 100% right. I didn’t know anyone with money, big money anyway. I knew of people who had wealth but I myself, was in a crowd of middle to lower class folks who, although generous, had no idea what it might be like to be the steward of millions of dollars. They could barely pay their bills each month let alone imagine what it must be like to have such profound resources at their disposal.
I started a career in philanthropy with similar economic status to those in my community back then. Living in a studio apartment and making $25,000 a year, I spent every day contemplating whether or not this sector would accept me, encourage me or see what I had to offer as something of value to their change agency. In getting to know them, I was a bit judgmental in those first few months, developing resentment towards people of high net worth that I was getting to know. I watched them cut $1,000,000 checks, discuss the stress of collaborating with their grantees and share how difficult it was to travel all the time to exotic places to visit the work they funded. I was so jealous. I wanted to be out solving global problems. I wanted to travel to witness transformational work. I didn’t want to worry anymore about my own personal finances. I desired to have the ease that could come with enough money to live out a joyful lifetime plus, be a powerful agent of change.
Resentment, as we all know, can lead to bitterness and my jealous attitude was witnessed by a few in those first few months. I was angry I had to work so hard to pay my bills and couldn’t travel and do what I wanted. I was frustrated that I could only give $25 to a program I wanted to see fully funded. I was struggling with my wildly empathic little self every day. I felt so driven to keep finding ways to make enough so I could give enough, to truly feel like it would make a difference. I didn’t want to be told I could not fully realize this vision of who I was becoming.
I’m sitting here today, on National Philanthropy Day, remembering that bitter and angry young girl. I can see my furrowed brow and hear my exasperated sighs. I’m also recalling the moment a wise philanthropist witnessed these emotions in a younger me and called them out. I’ll be forever grateful for her stern look, solid words and firm wisdom, that looked into my 22 year old face and said, “You know Alyssa, it is not easy to give away money. I have a story too.”
Carol* was one of the first women in philanthropy that felt accessible to me. She was warm, funny and when she spoke, I felt like I could watch her gentle words like music notes float in the air around me. From what I could tell, she loved what she did, who she was and how she moved through the world. I was captivated by her. More so, I wanted her to like me, be my friend and see me as a peer. These were three things I thought would never happen just because we had different size bank accounts. Looking back, I know this was quite silly of me at the time, but I imagine many new people as they come into this sector may at first feel that way.
Carol shared her personal story with me that day, sitting me down in the middle of Grand Central Station, to let me know that money, as much as a gift, can often feel like a burden. She also shared that in a world where government is often doing little to support the most vulnerable, having money is a huge responsibility. I had never seen it like that until that moment. Money at that time in my life made me angry because I often did not have enough to get by. I made as much as I could and tried to give away as much as I could and thought little of being strategic about it all. I kept giving and doing without little inquiry as to how I was being responsible, even with the little ‘wealth’ I was privileged enough to be able to earn.
Additionally, the thought that more money would equal more responsibility, more work and more care had never really crossed my mind. I often had images of rich people rolling around on beds covered in dollars bills and drinking champagne not spending hours researching how to solve pressing social, environmental and economic issues. I was so wrong.
Almost a decade later, I am always seeking to expand how we view philanthropy and define philanthropist in my work. I identify as a philanthropist now because as Carol reminded me way back then, we all need to be smart when stewarding any amount of money to social change. Being responsible with our resources may not be fun or what we 'want' as I so immaturely thought a decade ago, but it’s what the world requires of us for these times we are living in. Making sure that our values are attached to every dollar we give, spend, save and invest is critical and the more we know, the smarter we can be in all four scenarios.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude today for those who strive to be responsible, strategic, smart and loving with their money. I am a little less fearful waking up each day knowing that such philanthropy exists and is encouraged in our ever-changing world. I am hopeful that philanthropic tools are becoming more accessible to the everyday person. I am aware that we can all only do so much but, when we come together we do so much more. I am alive in the knowledge that united, philanthropy stands to solve that which government may not but the world so deeply needs.
To my colleagues in the communities of Women Moving Millions, New England International Donors, The Women Donor’s Network, The Maverick Collective, Hispanics in Philanthropy, The Boston Foundation, NEXUS, Resource Generation, Native Americans in Philanthropy and many others ~ thank you. Your strong leadership, joy and thoughtfulness inspires every day.
*Names have been changed for privacy.