Is Philanthropy an Exclusionary Term in African-American Communities?

For most people involved in the work of doing good, they have participated in various debates concerning the different viewpoints, as well as interpretations, of philanthropy and charity. The mere utterance of these two words in a sentence is sometimes met with the same level of passion as a debate on the floor of the House of Representative. In African-American communities, there are various interpretations of each word as well as the activities and individuals associated with charitable or philanthropic work. By taking a look at how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the two words, it is evident that the debate is not unfounded:

Cha - ri - ty: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
2 a : generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also : aid given to those in need b : an institution engaged in relief of the poor c : public provision for the relief of the needy

Phil - an - thro - py: goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially: active effort to promote human welfare
2 a : an act or gift done or made for humanitarian purposes b : an organization distributing or supported by funds set aside for humanitarian purposes

Although some people might believe that philanthropy and charitable giving as synonymous terms, based upon these traditional definitions, charitable outreach seems to be assigned to a lesser position that its loftier, seemingly more noble sibling -- philanthropy. As I read the words defining "philanthropy" and "charity", I feel a sense of discomfort. There appears to be a difference. If you look at examples of both words, engaging in charitable work would seem to be the appropriate noblesse oblige of churches, grassroots activists, and nonprofits in our communities; while philanthropy is ascribed to doing work for colleges, universities, artistic institutions, museums and other similar institutions.

Regardless of the manner in which the general population may describe philanthropy and charity, across the diverse communities of African Americans there are wide-ranging opinions on what philanthropy and charitable giving means. For many educated and/or affluent African Americans, engaging in philanthropy is a natural progression after attaining a level of socio-economic parity with their non African-American counterparts. News and magazine articles often discuss African-American philanthropists, especially celebrities, athletes, entertainers, and business leaders in the context of their affluence and wealth. Emerging circles of young African-American professionals see themselves as participants in the new philanthropy movement and/or the new wave of philanthropy that are more inclusive (socially and economically) as well as innovative than traditional philanthropy. For the new African-American philanthropists, they are not waiting to make their first million or for an invitation to join the board of an established nonprofit. Instead, these young, African-American philanthropists are mingling among influential individuals of all races and using their connections to help wide variety of social, intellectual, and economic causes.

Discussing philanthropy and charity in African-American circles is not necessarily problematic, for instance, when it is conducted in the context of asking for donations after a major natural disaster or sponsoring a bus trip for teens to visit colleges. The conversations I have engaged in with colleagues and friends invariably become more heated when someone asks members of the group if they have done any charitable work to help the vulnerable members of our society such as individuals who are out of work, underemployed, living in poverty, or combating violence in troubled communities. Some of these conversations become peppered with innuendo regarding the lack of motivation of the people living in precarious situations to improve their circumstances. On several occasions, I have listened to people interject that they earned their money so why should they give it away to someone who might not deserve it. Although those people seemed selfish as well as misguided, they expressed a sentiment that is not uncommon. In this context, a person elects to "qualify" whether or not a charity is worthy based upon their opinion of the people the charity seeks to serve.

As I pen these words, I am reminded of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s timeless words concerning philanthropy: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary."

Dr. King tied philanthropy to addressing economic injustice, thus, he viewed philanthropy within the context of extending a charitable hand to lift up the poor, separate-and-unequal members of any society. Within the context of Dr. King's quote, a philanthropist is an activist -- a catalyst for change. Dr. King admonished philanthropists not to place themselves in such a lofty, exclusive position that they could not identify with people experiencing economic disparity. He clearly understood that underlying all the other inequities within our society is economic inequality. According to Dr. King, it is imperative for philanthropists to effectuate change. Such a characterization takes the philanthropists out of the ivory tower and puts him and her onto the highways with the other "Good Samaritans" who are challenging the status quo and uplifting the disenfranchised.

Regardless of the term used, improving humanity is at the core of philanthropy as well as charity. It is only when individuals polarize the causes or the individuals intended to benefit from the causes that philanthropy can become a seemingly "exclusionary" term in the African-American community.

The first step in removing any misconceptions regarding philanthropy and charity is to promote dialogue about doing good for the sake of doing good. We live in an age where a person does not have to be a multimillionaire or an affluent member of society to be a philanthropist. In these times when so many people and institutions are in need of financial as well as moral support, building bridges are more valuable than constructing bulwarks.