A Word About Philanthropy and Giving Back

No discussion about accidental wealth would be complete without a direct discussion of philanthropy. Not because I’m going to tell you that that you “should” be philanthropic, but because I want you to make a conscious choice one way or the other. It’s too easy to conveniently forget as you come to terms with your new found situation and miss opportunities you hadn’t thought of.

Yes, I want you to at least think about and make a decision about how you might give some of your wealth away.

One of the problems in discussing philanthropy as a general topic is that society places a lot of expectations, both direct and indirect, on the wealthy, and can be very quick to judge when those expectations aren’t being met.

I’m not going to do that.

What you choose to do is up to you.

But the key is that I think it’s important to consider deeply, to choose and to acknowledge that you now have capacity to participate in your community, or in the world at large, in ways that you perhaps had not been able to prior.

As the realization of our accidental wealth grew my wife and I became more philanthropic out of a sense of deep gratitude for our good fortune. “Giving back” was a very real and tangible thing to us. We’d always participated at some level, it’s how we were brought up, but as our capacity grew we knew it was only right that our participation grew.

One of the saddest realizations I had some years ago was hearing from an organization what it meant to be a “major donor”. Major donors are those who give gifts of a perhaps higher than average dollar amount. Organizations often specifically acknowledge major donors in some way to encourage their continued participation, and the participation of their peers. (It’s not a case of not appreciating the smaller donors, far from it, but in terms of prioritizing an organizations extremely limited resources it makes sense to focus a tad more energy on those who participate at a higher level.)

I was shocked at how low the major donor threshold was.

I fully expected many more people would be giving larger gifts than they apparently had been.

What that means to you is that with extra capacity comes extra opportunity: you have a unique ability to positively impact the causes you might care about to a level or degree that you might not even realize.

Your gift might mean more than you think.

Naturally along with family and friends, non-profits and other worthy causes – and even a few not-so-worthy causes – will come to you. One of the hardest things for me to do is to say no. Even within my philanthropic interests there are so many possibilities, organizations and causes that it’s painful to turn any away. My approach has been simple: plan. Set priorities, research and choose the organizations you want to support, and then support them according to your plan. Knowing that you’re supporting, by choice, one organization makes turning down others a little less guilt-ridden.

Similarly, when the opportunity arises, I splurge a little. Things like being a leader in the office collection for something, visiting a corner fund-raising car wash and over-paying, buying that extra box of girl scout cookies, whatever. I’ve talked about being generous in small ways in general, and it applies even more so when it comes to philanthropic opportunities. You have the ability to do something that will surprise you with it’s significance to the recipient. And that can feel good.

Finally, philanthropy isn’t only about money, it’s often about time as well. You might quit your dayjob, or cut back or whatever. The the bottom line is that if you have more time as a result of your accidental situation, it’s something else that you can offer. Particularly if you have skills, but often all you need is a passion for the mission of whomever you might want to work with. Once again, the opportunities are many.

What I really want to leave you with here is a sense that philanthropy is something important, something that you really want to sit down and consider. Planning what your goals are and taking stock of your available resources can help make sure that you make decisions with a purpose – whatever those decisions might be. They’ll help ensure that sometime down the road you’ll not have missed an opportunity you didn’t take the time to realize you had.

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