THE BLOG
11/07/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Philanthropy Is Not a Privilege of Wealth

What does is mean to be a philanthropist? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is "the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed esp. by the generous donation of money to good causes."

I consider myself a philanthropist, but I'm no Bill Gates.

So I looked up "humanitarian," which was the next closest job description, and came up with "a person who seeks to promote human welfare; a philanthropist." Technically, they are one and the same, yet somehow the word philanthropy has become tied with wealth and status.

The Greek origins of the word (philanthropos) originally meant "humanity-loving," and I think we should shift the word's association back to its root. In popular culture, the word "philanthropist" evokes glamorous images of Tony Stark, Oprah Winfrey, trust fund babies and billionaires sitting on their private islands reading over the latest hot NGO to donate to. Many people don't realize that philanthropists are also the field workers that trek out to dangerous locales to research underserved communities, the interns back home doing basic accounting for a non-profit because they want to somehow be involved or the fundraiser constantly schmoozing and charming the checks off the big donors. These are the individuals that put their heart and soul into the cause, yet often don't receive the same recognition as those willing to to write a $25,000 check. 

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The sexy, glamorous Philanthropist

Now don't get me wrong, altruism at all levels is incredibly commendable. People like Warren Buffet and his billionaires club, pledging to donate at least half their wealth, are extraordinary. What is also extraordinary is the individuals who contribute their time, their skill sets, their energy, even their whole lives to better mankind and surely these contributions are as valuable as cold, hard cash? Its not just media perception and fancy award galas perpetuating the stereotype of philanthropy being something one should afford, but also cash-strapped nonprofits trying to cut as much overhead as possible. The lower (or non-existent) pay stemming from these cuts drive away smart, passionate youth who fear not being able to pay their student loans, rent or even eat if they take that oh-so-coveted job building schools in India, because the pay will simply not be enough.

Recently, a friend signed up for a three-month, unpaid, full-time internship with a well-known NGO whose mission was very dear to her. Her contract promised a full-time salary at the end of the three months, if they liked her work. Aside from the fact that unpaid internships are controversial and often illegal, my friend was ecstatic at the opportunity and spent 12-hour days hard at work and motivated by the cause. She was getting great feedback from the team, so she assumed the salary offer would be a no-brainer at the three-month mark. However, when the time came, they simply stated they did not have enough funding to pay her for another three months, and if she could continue working for free, they would love to have her. Well, not being a trust fund baby and not being able to live off of family income, she had to leave the position. 

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As director of an NGO, I know how much funding we have in our account for at least the next six months. An organization as big as the one my friend worked for, which raised close to a million dollars last year (according to Guidestar) should know their budget for the year. One could argue that they led my friend on under false premises for free labor, and the irony lies in the fact that the organization works to eradicate poverty in the Congo, yet expect their own staff back home to be well-off enough to work for free. These are unrealistic expectations which deter ambitious, hard-working youth wanting to devote their energy to a greater cause, and further the stereotype of philanthropy being a privilege of wealth.

You are a philanthropist not only if you give away your hard-earned money (or grandma's money) to better mankind, but also if you log in 12-hour days researching trends in Malaria, spend three months de-worming orphans in Somalia, or spend your weekends at the local soup kitchen. There is nothing too small, and conversely, nothing too big. The NGO field, with its lower pay, risky travel and odd hours, needs committed and passionate individuals willing to make a career out of it, and one of the most promising demographics we can find that in is the millennials. Robert F. Kennedy said it best:

This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease... It is the young people who must take the lead.

I head off to Central America this week for Kitechild's latest projects, ready for the adventure. It's not everyone who is willing to pack up and go work in a developing country, but that is the beauty of youth. Of no mortgages, no kids, no marriage. My only responsibilities are my plant and my student loans, and I'm sure those two will be fine while I'm gone. I know I wouldn't be able to do my job without our generous donors, but I also wouldn't be able to do my job without my amazing interns, volunteer staff and board. They are all philanthropists to me, and proof that you don't need millions of dollars to be a part of changing the world.