Money… Philanthropy… and the Arts

A few days ago I attended a memorial service for a friend and neighbor who succumbed to cancer after several harrowing years of medical treatments that eventually failed. The first impression he made on almost everyone was that of a curmudgeon, but behind that exterior was a practical and caring philanthropist, and several hundred people turned out for the memorial service. They didn’t come, for the most part, because he donated money to various local medical, arts, and educational institutions, but because he would not give money without giving his time and advice and physical support and presence as well. Because he did so, even though his name was never tied to a PR-style gift or donation, he touched people, not on a “mass” basis, but one-on-one.

His example, however, got me to thinking about all the people who give and give, of themselves, but who are seldom, if ever, recognized or appreciated because there are no visible dollar signs attached to their efforts. I’m not disabusing those whose philanthropy consists in whole or part of financial support of worthy efforts or institutions, but I am suggesting that we, as a society, tend to think of “philanthropists” almost entirely in terms of their monetary support.

But what about the teachers who, year after year, buy extra supplies and equipment out of their far from extravagant salaries so that their pupils will have a better education and who give of their time well beyond what is required? What about the volunteers who read to students or to those in hospitals and retirement homes? What about the doctors and dentists who spend weeks or months, at their own expense, treating the poor and underprivileged, either here or abroad?

Oh, I know, there is often recognition of “volunteers” on both the community and even the national level, but the distinction made between “volunteer” and “philanthropist” bothers me more than a little.

For example, take a teacher who spends five to ten percent of his or her salary on items used in teaching and for the sole benefit of the students. After thirty years of teaching, that teacher will have effectively donated not only time, but from $50,000 to well over $100,000 to the education of the students. Yet if a local business pledged $50,000 to a single public school, there would certainly be press and recognition.

A “volunteer” reads to students or patients for just five hours a week for, say, forty weeks out of the year. Assuming the value of this effort even at the minimum wage, that reading is worth more than $1,000. Most institutions will list a thousand dollar contributor on their “valued donor” list, but how many list such volunteers in the same way?

What I find equally interesting is that monetary gifts are, in themselves, useless. Fifty thousand, or fifty million, dollars in hundred dollar bills, or in a single check, doesn’t cure people, doesn’t aid or help people. What those gifts do is allow the institution to purchase goods or services that will help people. It’s those goods and services that count in the end… and yet we tend not to recognize those who provide such services on an unpaid and/or unrecognized basis, especially if they’re provided quietly and over time.

To me, this is just another aspect of the worship of financial gain, and the failure of all too many Americans, and perhaps others as well, to understand that amassing money, or even disbursing it, is not anywhere near the only measure of success, or even the full or accurate measure of success… or of philanthropy.