THE BLOG
11/18/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Women Leaders Talk Personal: How to Be a True Philanthropist

What makes a gathering of women leaders particularly powerful? It's easy to assume that when a group of 250 women who oversee billions of dollars in capital come together their focus would be on investment strategies. This will not be the case for the Groundbreakers Women in Leadership Summit on December 11 in New York City. This gathering will focus on a different kind of investment -- the individual. It will be a day of personal reflection, networking and inspiration. In its fourth year, the Groundbreakers Summit was created by the Robert Toigo Foundation as a forum for diverse women leaders from finance and philanthropy to media and public service, from multi-cultural and multi-ethnic backgrounds, to come together to strengthen their leadership skills. For over 25 years, the Robert Toigo Foundation has advocated for increased opportunities for those who are disproportionately underrepresented in finance and business.

Why is the Groundbreakers Summit important? Because despite significant gains by women in business, studies still show that women have yet to sufficiently "breakthrough" into the ranks of leadership, business ownership and significant share of wealth. A recently released report by Catalyst, a trusted source of knowledge on gender, leadership and talent management in business, showed that women currently hold 5.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 5.4 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions. Catalyst also highlights the dearth of women who sit on corporate boards. Therefore, it's imperative that efforts like the Toigo Foundation's initiative continue in support of women leaders.

At this Summit, I will facilitate a new workshop, "Become A True Philanthropist," that will guide women leaders in an exploration of their personal vision, values, and passions, and conclude with concrete actions to begin their philanthropic journey. They will discover the intersection between their career paths and the path to their philanthropic interests and passions.

Consider the etymology of the word, philanthropy - love of humanity. A philanthropist therefore is someone who cares, nourishes, develops and enhances what it is to be human (paraphrased from Wikipedia). But believing in these values - caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing is not enough; what distinguishes a philanthropist is sustained and intentional action.

Here are five practical tips on becoming a true philanthropist:

1. Start with your personal vision.

A personal vision is an outward expression of who you are - your values, beliefs, culture, passions and aspirations. If you have not articulated it or committed it to paper, now is the time. You define what that vision is, that invisible magnet that pulls you in a certain direction, that guides particular actions. Is it welcoming strangers in your home and community? Is it giving voice to the invisible or the oppressed? Or, is it using your influence to advocate for policy change? Philanthropy in its essence, love of humanity, is a reflection of the best part of each of us.

2. Do an inventory and assume you have assets to share.

Writing a check to your favored nonprofit agency is vital because it's monetary support that keeps the nonprofit engine running (lights stay on and staff gets paid on time with living wage). However, philanthropy goes beyond monetary donations, it encompasses other acts of giving - like coaching young entrepreneurs, opening doors of opportunity for returning ex-prisoners, advocating for women's full reproductive rights, and much more. Do an inventory of your assets, you'd be surprised with what you already have to jumpstart your philanthropic venture.

3. Stay as close as possible to the people and the issues.

Whatever the issue, the one that resonates with your personal vision, learn as much as you can and stay humble. You are not suddenly an expert on poverty, water policy or immigration reform. Remember that you're entering people's lives - their world of hopes and aspirations, their struggles and pain. In the end, it's not the amount you gave that people will remember but how you engaged with them - person to person - with genuine empathy, dignity and respect.

4. There are many philanthropists ahead of you, follow their lead.

Learn from the best. Find a giving community in your area. Also reach out to those who attempted and failed - there are important lessons to be learned. If you need a jumpstart, find a buddy, don't go at this alone. After all, exercising your philanthropic muscle ought to be fun! There are many resources available on issues of interest. Learn how to use independent sources of nonprofit data like Charity Navigator and Guidestar or locate an accredited community foundation to get help in setting up your donor-advised fund.

5. Commit to three actions.

Write down three specific actions you will commit to in the next 60 days. Carve out time in your busy schedule - it's the only way to get started. Schedule a lunch date with a colleague to learn about the role of a board member. Visit an entrepreneurship program and meet the participants. Learn about food systems and the issue of hunger from local farmers. With any new venture, the reward you get from an immediate action will be self-reinforcing and will motivate you to continue on your philanthropic path.

Becoming a true philanthropist is a journey of self-discovery. It is also an invitation to take part in social transformation - when individuals and communities are changed for the better. The act of giving touches both the giver and the recipient; each one is changed as a consequence.

Maya Angelou wrote, "I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver." The Groundbreakers Summit on December 11 will bring together women leaders who have the power to blaze new trails in their fields - investment, business, media, public service - and more importantly, they have the power to harness resources, talents and influence for the greater good.