Dear Aleena: 5 Lessons From a New Dad to the Youngest Philanthropist

My Dearest Aleena,

It's hard to believe you're already a month old! Every day, your mother and I are excited to learn new things about you and what we can do to help you grow. Fortunately, we can use much of what we learned from our first baby: Jolkona, the nonprofit we started together and have nurtured for the past five years.

Just as we're now figuring out parenthood along the way, we hardly knew anything about philanthropy before creating Jolkona. All we knew was that we wanted to use our spare change to help specific people around the world in a tangible, transparent way. However, there wasn't anyone offering a range of vetted microdonation options with detailed impact reports at the time. Jolkona's first year was exhausting: we had to learn all about starting a 501(c)(3), building an effective board, handling donations securely, etc. Our kitchen doubled as our office; our first event was in a tiny apartment clubhouse in Los Angeles, attended by 13 people. We spent many sleepless nights working to build a good foundation, so that Jolkona can now support its own office and a small paid staff.

As Jolkona has grown up, I have learned that giving back is not just a responsibility or a moral obligation: it is also a great honor to be in a position to help others. One must cultivate and practice giving for many years to become an effective changemaker. We have already gotten you started, by signing you up as one of Jolkona's monthly Give Together donors. So far, you have helped buy reading lights for a village school in Ghana, and a cleft palate surgery for a young child in Bolivia.

But your mother and I will not always be around to help you make these choices. As you get older, here are 5 lessons I have learned about philanthropy, to guide your own journey into giving:

  1. None of us choose the lives we are born into, but all of us choose the lives we live. If you put your mind to it, I'm certain you will achieve any goals you set. So, choose wisely, and find what makes you happy. To pursue philanthropy, I walked away from a corporate job without a safety net or large savings. But doing that was one of the best decisions of my life, because I can now focus on my passion: bringing opportunity to where there is despair.
  2. Life's greatest gift is the ability to change the lives of others. That gift does not come with any preconditions or minimum requirements. I hope you will help people, not out of guilt or tax incentive or sense of responsibility, but because you draw true happiness and purpose from knowing that others are better off because of your actions.
  3. Helping just one other person is a good start. Don't think you have to be a billionaire to make a difference. You can start with very small actions and grow with time. Remember, even your smile can lift someone up.
  4. Provide help that people want, not what you think they need. Our idea of what is helpful and right might actually be very wrong for those we are trying to help. Accept that you don't have all the answers, learn from others and be humble when trying to help those who are less fortunate.
  5. People will never forget how you made them feel. We all get one shot at life. You can erect buildings, create empires and have tons of money -- but you can't take any of that with you. At the end of this life, the only thing that remains is what we leave in people's hearts. They will never forget how you made them feel.

Aleena, since you've come into our lives, your mother and I are back to many sleepless nights. But once again, it's worth it: you are inspiring us to be the best we can be so that we can set a good example for you. I can't wait to watch you grow up and create your own path in this crazy world -- one that may lead others to a better place.


Adnan Mahmud presented these lessons at Seattle Tech Meetup's Tech for Good night in August. Visit the Jolkona Blog to watch the video.
Follow Adnan Mahmud on Twitter @Jolkona