Is Philanthropy More Than Money?

Tuesday, March 30th was National Doctor’s Day. So, a special shout out to all the docs out there for what you are doing, especially those physicians and other health care workers risking their own health and sacrificing time with their families to treat COVID-19 patients over the past year.

My fellow fundraising professionals are often quick to point out the statistical fact that doctors, compared to their peers in other professions, typically rank near the bottom when it comes to giving. I understand the data, and campaigns I have been part of have felt the disappointment of gift commitments never made, or pledges never paid, from doctors (and others, of course) with significant financial means.

I believe strongly in the financial giving aspect of philanthropy. My career has been focused on helping the causes I work on benefit from such generosity. But I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to doctors and the assertation that they are not as ‘philanthropic’ as their peers in other professions.

I take a broader view of philanthropy than what we hear about when the Bill Gates’, Warren Buffet’s, Oprah Winfrey’s, and MacKenzie Scott’s of the world make multi-million-dollar, high impact, high profile gifts and grants. Are these investments important? Yes! Can they change the world for the better? Absolutely, if leveraged in the right ways with the right organizations. But when we paint the mosaic of philanthropy with the single brush of wealth and affluence, we risk diminishing the collective impact of generosity in the world.

My dad was a doctor. And though he died when I was young, I have never heard a story of his financial generosity or seen a plaque in honor of his charitable giving. But in many ways, he is the first and greatest philanthropist I ever knew. While living the best parts of his life with my mom and raising our family, he always found the time, energy, and resource to be a great family doctor and community leader. On the doctor side, he made house calls! (Are any of you reading this old enough to remember those?) My dad would regularly make early morning, after-work, or sometimes late-night visits to the homes of patients who had suddenly fallen ill, or who were too frail to come to his office for treatment. Payment for services was an afterthought for him and often came in the form of a small bag of fresh vegetables from the family’s garden.

Many of the vivid memories I have of dad when he was not being ‘Dr. Armstrong’ were seeing him caring for the larger community. Community mattered a lot to both my parents, and they taught us by example what that meant. I remember vividly one Christmas Eve when I was seven or eight years old. A family that lived on the outskirts of town lost their home to a fire. At our church on Christmas Eve, my dad stood up at the beginning of the service to ask members to bring donations of food, clothes, and some presents for the kids, saying that a group of men would deliver them later that night. As my mom told me years later, it was an uncomfortable moment when a small but vocal group of members approached my parents after the service to express their displeasure in their worship service being disrupted by such a request. Thankfully, the voices were few and the words did not deter my dad and several other members of the church that night as they loaded up and delivered several trucks of donated items that night.

There is plenty of room for philanthropy of all shapes and sizes! I am grateful for my dad’s example and how it has influenced my view of giving. I hope we all continue to encourage, call out, shout out, and celebrate the countless big or small, loud or silent, individual or collective ways that philanthropy is expressed around us.

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