I was a philanthropist before I even knew what that word meant. It wasn’t until much later in my life when I started working in the non-profit industry that I realized I had prior experience dating back to when I was eight years old, when I gave up getting presents for my birthday in favor of collecting donations in a brown wicker basket for a group home for foster kids.
My mom had been one of the kids living in this home, so it was not as much a sense of civic duty as a way to give back to an organization that had ensured my mom was set up to lead the life she had - the life that ultimately led to me. Because of this connection, I felt a sense of purpose and pride in the collections every year. I understood the impact that the organization had without an outside source telling me it was important.
Once I hit my more materialistic teen years, I went back to asking for presents, having ultimately decided that I had done enough for kids I had never met, and would get greater enjoyment from a new iphone. And, although I’m sure my mother felt some level of disappointment, she never commented on that choice, and for that I am grateful. Because she quietly put away the basket, I was able to feel agency over my decision to give, and never got to the point of resenting those years I felt obligated to give back to the community that had given me her. Instead, I forgot about it completely.
Then, suddenly, I was in college, having switched from Biology to Literature and Communications during a global crisis. My Federal Work Study grant didn’t have much to offer online outside of tutoring and other classroom help, which is how I got back to helping kids who were struggling find a path through education. And I kept going. I made the career choice to go into nonprofit work, in order to further my understanding of their work and their barriers. I encouraged my mom to go back to school at the local community college she had dropped out of before I was born. And through research I deepened my understanding that issues were systemic and not situational.
When people first asked me when I started my philanthropic work, I used to say high school and college. But I don’t think I should discount my initial drive to help others, fostered from when I was a child. Without that initial connection to helping other children I don’t know if I would have felt so strongly connected to the issues I care about now. It helped me grow as a person and gave me confidence that I could make a difference in the world, no matter how small.