Blog / Family Philanthropy

Everybody’s Philanthropic Autobiography, Part II: How do we write it?

by Michael Moody
Everybody’s Philanthropic Autobiography, Part II: How do we write it?

The first post about philanthropic autobiographies focused on why they are important. This post looks at what such an autobiography might include, and how to get people into thinking about their own.

Your philanthropic autobiography is not just a summary of your motives, values, or strategies for giving or volunteering; it is about the personal experiences that led you to have or form those motives, values, or strategies. Like Carnegie, your philanthropic autobiography will likely include episodes in which you were on the receiving end rather than the giving end. And it can include lessons you learned about why you should be philanthropic as well as how.

Some people will point to a traumatic experience as the key moment, such as how a child who loses her mother to disease grows up to be an avid volunteer at breast cancer walks. For others it includes what they learned about charity from their grandfather, or in synagogue, or in a college history class, or through a class project collecting “pennies for peace.”

“Your philanthropic autobiography is … about the personal experiences that led you to have or form those motives, values, or strategies.”

Over the years I’ve lead various groups in exercises designed to get them to reflect on their philanthropic autobiographies. To get them thinking about meaningful stories instead of just listing their motives, I give them some guiding questions:

  • What did you learn about giving or service from your parents (or other family members)? Did they teach you those lessons by telling or by doing, or both?
  • What did you learn (and how) from other influences in your life, such as a faith community or a club?
  • Was there a time in your life when you or your family needed help? Who provided that help, and what did you take away from that experience?
  • What gift have you given that you are most proud of? Why?
  • What is your earliest experience of giving and volunteering? Was this an organized effort, or some sort of informal helping?
  • In what ways have you benefited from larger-scale institutional philanthropy, such as universities or parks or medical research or libraries?
  • Think about the giving and volunteering you do currently. Where did you learn how to do philanthropy in that way?
  • Were there times in your life when you were less active in philanthropy than at other times? What led to that change?
  • When did you first become aware that there are people in need in the world, or in your own community, and that you had a responsibility to help them?

I led a group of Muslim students who were about to enter graduate programs in nonprofit management through this sort of exercise. These were people who were presumably not unaware of their personal reasons for deciding to work in this field, but writing down and sharing their autobiographies helped them clarify those reasons, and connected them to each other and to their cultural tradition in valuable ways. They talked about learning the official teachings and rules in the Koran about zakat and tzedakah, as well as the folk wisdom about how “good Muslims” can meet those obligations. A few were surprised to learn that others in the group saw charity not just as a duty to Allah, but as a way to ensure that good fortune will smile on you in unexpected ways in the future. These understandings can only help them as they begin careers that often involve encouraging others with similar biographies to give.

Perhaps a philanthropic autobiography exercise should be part of our training programs for people planning to work in nonprofits, including students. And these philanthropic professionals can then help donors and volunteers reflect on how their past brings them to philanthropy. Fund raisers can help donors think about their giving in ways that enrich their giving experience and make it something they recognize as central to their lives. Volunteer managers can do the same.

People love to talk about themselves, and we have a tendency to look for meaningful patterns in our lives — to find a coherent set of guiding principles or lessons learned. Encouraging people to talk about their philanthropic selves is, then, a nice way to encourage them to embrace their self-image as committed, thoughtful philanthropists. Having more of those can only be a good thing.