The Role of Philanthropy and the Arts in Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals

by Cheri R. Kaufman

I've come here today to share with you a perspective that spans many years.

Because, as I look out upon the bright, young and determined faces in this room, I see someone I recognize. I see myself, years ago, setting off on all of my adventures and amazing experiences.

I was then a young woman just barely out of college, and working in the hospitality industry. I was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: an executive position as Middle East Director of Acquisitions for the Intercontinental Hotel Chain. The catch was it meant moving to Dubai, which then was just beginning its climb towards its future status as a world capital. It was a very, very scary proposition.

I knew how exceptionally rare it was that a woman, especially a young, single, dare I say "attractive" Western woman, would be negotiating and executing deals with sheiks and heads of royal families in such a traditional, male-dominated culture. My parents, of course, were very concerned.

"You have more guts than brains," my mother said to me one day. Not that she thought I wasn't smart, she knew that I always had a great curiosity about life. She also knew that I was fearlessly determined to explore and experience the world. Neither she, nor I, knew at the time that my decision to move halfway across the world would set in motion a career and life that, even today, continues to surprise me at every turn.

My hotel career, which included postings in Dubai, Sharjah, Cairo, New Delhi and Singapore, brought me in contact with many inspiring people, heads of state and international entrepreneurs. On these travels to cities in far-off countries, I was a witness to and informed by a vast variety of cultures, people, traditions and lifestyles so different than my own. These adventures awakened within me a life-long capacity for empathy and a passion to make a difference in the world.

When I was your age, I certainly never imagined that I'd ever be speaking from the podium of the UN General Assembly. I am proud to say that from an early stage in my life, I have endeavored to translate my idealism, curiosity, tenacity and energy - qualities I perceive in all of you --into rewarding involvements with charities, philanthropies and arts organizations that foster cultural understanding and global cooperation.

For no matter what form it takes, philanthropy, defined as the "love of mankind," allows us to imagine what it is to walk in someone else's shoes: to think about others and how we would feel if we had to face their challenges; to feel the incredible affirmation of one's own humanity by giving hope and help to others in this world.

Remain alert. You will discover that life is constantly presenting you with situations in which you can make a difference. The act of giving may involve you being generous with your time, generous with your creativity, generous with your enthusiasm, as you reach out to your friends to urge them to consider being supportive.

Currently, I serve as Vice President of the foundation's Board of Directors. For those who don't know it, Lifeline is a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid and medical assistance to the innocent children of war-torn Serbia. The missions I've been on to that region, and the relief I've seen in action there, have affected me deeply and stiffened my resolve to pitch in and help out. The plight of Middle East refugees now streaming across Europe has been taken up by Lifeline.

It is love that allows us to more deeply empathize with our fellow humans. This is a bond that you and I share because I know it is your concern for others, your expansive values and commitment to global issues that have brought each-and-every one of you here from distant corners of the world, to this great room for this important gathering, perhaps your first foray upon the global stage.

You are here, maybe to advance yourselves, but more nobly to promote the welfare of others. You and your generation are just now arriving at your great opportunity to take on the world and to change it for the better.

Like every new generation, the ancestors who preceded you, and especially those who raised you, are somewhat skeptical about your prospects. Not unlike my contemporaries, the flower-power youth of the late 1960's, you and your fellow "millennials" are reputed to be self-absorbed and entitled. You have been raised in the Digital Age, in a global culture saturated with self help, self love and selfie-sticks. So, naturally, there are elders who worry and wonder if your generation will want to, or will be able to, reach out and help others.

Happily, the answer is a resounding YES.

In fact, statistics gathered by the Case Foundation already prove it. In 2013, for instance, 83 percent of Millennials responding to a Case survey, said they made a financial gift to a non-profit organization in the previous year.

You truly are the New Philanthropists.

You are here because you have already chosen altruism over narcissism. You've arrived at this conference to help advance the UN's Sustainable Development Goals to alleviate poverty, end hunger, ensure access to good education, and advance gender equality. You are here because, fundamentally, within your hearts, within your guts, as my mother would say, you care about our world and its future.

Thanks to your extensive immersion in social media, you have an expansive understanding of the tremendous challenges our world must overcome. Many of you have already made those challenges your own personal priorities. Your commitment to the world is simultaneously selfish and selfless.

Indeed, your generation is in the process of making its presence felt by making a difference in new and very effective ways. You are the masters of social media, teaching the world how to put the technologies at our fingertips into effective messages that instantly echo around the world. You are showing us that the best use of digital platforms is not to point your smart-phones at yourself, but to share with the world what you see with your eyes. When you see injustice, when you see indifference, when you see inequality, you amplify your outrage to the ears and eyes of others.

This will be the great challenge of your generation: how to unleash your skills, live your values and facilitate change by fortifying the institutions and organizations that manifest your values. Philanthropy is the down-payment one generation makes to secure a better world for the next. In other words, philanthropy is the very currency of sustainability.

And so, please forgive me if I seem like a big sister to each one of you-cheering you on, believing in you. Take advantage of this moment, this occasion of being surrounded by like-minded leaders of tomorrow. Look to your right. Look to your left. These people will be your colleagues, your collaborators, your partners, your supporters. As they say in Broadway's Hamilton, "History has its eyes on you."

You are the new generation of leaders, willing to commit yourselves to philanthropy as a way of life, fully integrated into business, government and the private sector. So, dare to imagine a better future. The future does not just happen as we imagine it. We can go out and create it with our guts and our brains by the everyday things we do. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't tell us: "I have a plan." He inspired us, saying: "I have a dream."

So, for every individual, the big questions are: What values do you care about? How can you engage others to enact them? What skills have you honed that are in short supply, and the world needs? What organizations exist that best embody your ideals, and deserve your support and time? I urge you to exploit the inspirational power of what interests you, what moves you, what captures your imagination.

There will always be resistance. There will be those who tell you not to try, that the cost is too high or the distance too great. Be persistent. Believe. Be flexible. Be resilient. Be ready to take the old model and make it fresh. Be the difference between the world as it is and the world as it might be.

You want a better world? Go create it!

This is an address by Cheri R. Kaufman to the 2016 UN Youth Assembly.

This post is a part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Friendship Ambassadors Foundation following the 2016 Youth Assembly at the United Nations held on February 17-18, 2016. The winter session tackled the role of youth in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To see all posts in the series, click here.