Finding My Place in Philanthropy

James H. Lightfoot III, Non-Profit Leader, Educator, Mentor, Creative Artist, and Philanthropist | Black Philanthropy Month Blog Contributor

Philanthropy, as I define it, is the act of giving for a greater cause that is not only sustainable but provides a larger benefit because it attracts others to get involved. Early in my life, I would have never been able to define this act of giving. I would have never even considered myself a philanthropist, however, the reality is that I have been a philanthropist since the tender age of 3 or 4.

I heard stories of my first philanthropic act: walking myself up to the offering plate at my local house of worship with my family to tithe. My one or two dollars every week was contributing to a greater cause. At the time, I did not really understand and as I grew older and more mature, I still didn’t define this giving as philanthropy. Many in my culture are probably in this same boat, not seeing what they do as philanthropy. Our parents and grandparents instilled this practice in us early on: to give and it will be given back to you. As you share of your personal resources, it will come back to you in some form, financial or in another source or good. Had someone told me I was practicing philanthropy, I would have responded by saying what many others might also say, “I’m not rich.”

Philanthropy in its essence seems like it belongs to a certain demographic with more financial resources than that of the middle class. My understanding of philanthropy came later in my life, as I entered the professional world. I heard the term over and over, yet I did not see my place in the act or in the idea of philanthropy. While working on my undergraduate degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Non-Profit Management, I still didn’t see what role could play. It wasn’t until one day while I was sitting at my internship for a local theater company, preparing to send letters out to donors, that I realized I was working on a campaign for the Development/Philanthropy department. I was working to engage donors and I vaguely remember saying to myself, “One day I want to move into the position where I can be a philanthropist.”

I deeply desired to be in the position where I could provide resources to an organization to create opportunities for its patrons. I never considered my combined annual contributions to the United Way, my house of worship, YMCA, College Annual Giving, or even support of the Girls Scouts annual cookie program, and other causes I supported financially, as creating those same opportunities. Others may be in this same boat. Those who are in position to give should consider themselves philanthropists and encourage others to accept the title and status as well.

Currently, as I sit on multiple boards of governance and hold leadership roles in several nonprofit organizations, my role in philanthropy is apparent. I realize I no longer must wait until I am “rich” to participate in philanthropic activity. The reality is, I have been a philanthropist since I was a toddler and now as an adult, I am deeply involved– making a way for organizations to sustain their services and make an impact in the many communities they serve. I have found my place in philanthropy and I hope others will too.