Op-Ed: Altruism in philanthropy

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - 5:15pm

Wednesday, April 13, 2016: 5:15 p.m. 

Every Thursday morning, I walk into Weill Hall, climb three flights of stairs, open the door to a boardroom overlooking State Street and am transformed from a fourth-year college student into a member of a philanthropic foundation tasked with distributing $50,000.

Endowed with a grant from The Philanthropy Lab, a foundation dedicated to charitable education, Public Policy 475: Philanthropic Foundations (the section taught by Megan Tompkins-Stange) explores what it means to give away money. My 14 classmates and I dissect standards for giving, who is “worthy” of philanthropic funding and how we see ourselves giving in the future. Across the country, there are 13 other universities exploring these same themes, all to the tune of a very real $50,000 to be given away at the conclusion of the semester.

I am a senior now, and I am planning on working in the nonprofit sector, so this course aligns perfectly with my own career aspirations. However, it flips the script on my ambitions — I anticipate I will be spending the next few years of my life raising money, rather than giving it away. I have come to the conclusion that it’s a lot more fun to be giving away money for a cause than asking for money for a cause. As a donor (rather than a fundraiser), I feel immensely powerful. I have $50,000 burning a hole in my pocket, and it’s my decision who gets to take home a slice of the pie.

Every Thursday morning, I walk into this class and I feel powerful and important. This class has more gravitas than any other that I have taken here, with real money and the potential for substantive social change on the line.

But how should philanthropy operate? Metaphorically speaking, altruism gives me glowing, clear skin. Naturally, helping others makes me feel good about myself. Yet, acknowledging those benefits I gain from giving away money makes me squeamish. The social expectation is that we help others without any selfish motivations. Truthfully, I give away money for selfish reasons all the time. I pull out a few coins out of my back pocket for a person who is homeless on the streets of Ann Arbor, knowing full well that my friends are watching, with me secretly hoping they think I am generous and selfless.

And, like Carrie Bradshaw before me I can’t help but ask myself: Does it demean the gifts I am giving because my motives are not entirely pure? Despite my best intentions, could this form of paternalism hurt more than it helps?

I honestly don’t have the answers to these questions. But every Thursday morning, I am surrounded by supportive classmates who ask the same questions and worry about how to leverage privilege and money to build a future focused on social justice.

If I were ever to meet one of the writers of those ubiquitous think pieces about millennials and our perpetual self-absorption and complacency, I would point them to this classroom. Sure, my peers are idealistic, perhaps naive and probably indebted to a personal foundation of various forms of privilege. But we’re also questioning what we have been granted. We are poring over nonprofits’ tax returns, critiquing concepts about international development and exploring how to revitalize Detroit without gentrifying blighted neighborhoods.

The policy concerns of our generation are perfectly encapsulated in Public Policy 475 — our commitment to economic, racial and gender justice come to the forefront of every discussion. We don’t all agree on the best approaches to these challenges, but our commitment to positive change unites us.

It also unites the final five organizations that have made it past our rigorous preliminary debates and research. Of these organizations, according to the stipulations of our grant, we can only choose a maximum of three. Furthermore, we must choose what percentage of the pot will be allocated to each organization, and whether the funding will be restricted to a specific project or program.

The process of eliminating nine of the originally nominated organizations was hard enough. I can already tell that these final decisions will be the toughest — my conscientious classmates and I do not take this mandate lightly, and we are eager to responsibly distribute our funds.

At the end of the day, the collective emotional investment in the learning happening in that boardroom in Weill Hall is one of the most profound experiences of my college career. Whatever organizations make the final cut will be forces of change, but it is not the end goal that has already empowered and changed me. It is the community 14 other millennials and I have built, founded on a thoughtful process of dialoguing and questioning that inspires me beyond the classroom.

Micah Nelson is a senior in the Ford School of Public Policy.