Like virtue, philanthropy is a habit. Reflecting back on my own life, I can now see that my own habit stemmed from the positive influence of outstanding philanthropists around me. Therefore, the story of “my giving” is also their story. I was privileged to meet outstanding teachers of philanthropy in my childhood. Later, I was fortunate to cross paths with leaders of philanthropy who led by example. And for the last five years, I am honored to serve some of the most innovative philanthropic institutions. Throughout, my own giving has been in various forms: gifts of money, time, intellect and life. Now I hope that my story here can provide the gift of inspiration to the readers.
My parents, Emel and Ibrahim Betni were my first teachers. The unconditional love they instilled in me still inspires me to give today. They cared and asked me to care for people from all walks of life and for friends and strangers alike. Among many other caring acts, I have vivid memories of my parents donating supplies to many state-owned orphanages throughout Istanbul during my childhood.
I experienced and benefitted from the life-transforming power of American-style philanthropy as a high school student at Robert College of Istanbul. I was the recipient of a scholarship started in the name of a student who had tragically died in a car crash. It was an eye-opening experience because when people die in Turkey, their community just mourns. However, the power of philanthropy can enable their name to live on and benefit others. I credit this personal revelation to the Thomas Family who started this scholarship and exposed me to the joy of giving at a very early age. When I turned 18, I moved to the U.S. to study at Mount Holyoke College where the importance of public service and giving back was emphasized at every opportunity. The motto of its founder has been guiding my life ever since: “Do what nobody else will do and go where nobody else will go.”
Fourteen years after my high school graduation in 2008, I found out about the expiration of the scholarship fund from which I had benefited at high school. I instantly knew that I had to save it. With an initial pledge from my husband, Agha I. Mirza, I started the campaign to endow the same scholarship by raising US$100,000 and exceeded the goal within a year. Robert College’s head of Alumni Relations, Leyla Aktay, connected me to different alumni and taught me the real value of both making and sustaining connections. A few years ago, when our very close family friend passed away suddenly, Agha and I did not think twice to encourage and help his sister, with whom I had attended Mount Holyoke College, to start the Khan Memorial Scholarship Fund in her brother’s name at our Alma Mater.Empowering women through education was an ardent wish of our dear friend Naved Khan, so this endowed scholarship enables a deserving young woman from Asia to attend Mount Holyoke College.
More than a decade ago, Agha and I got involved with Developments in Literacy, which strives to educate underprivileged students, especially girls, by operating student-centered schools and offering high-quality professional development across Pakistan. I am grateful to DIL’s President of NY chapter Shaila Zamir for showing me how to create an army of volunteers and the true value of fundraising at a grand scale.
That’s how it all started for me - making one gift at a time, experiencing the joy of impact, and then it becomes habit. The one you can’t live without. But that was not enough.
“Give me the place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole word.” This quote by the Ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes provided my “eureka!” moment for that next step. Modern institutions give us both the place to stand and the lever for meaningful, lasting and effective impact. Successful non-profit organizations amplify the philanthropists’ individual efforts. I found my lever in MIT Public Service Center and Turkish Philanthropy Funds. Their drive for systematic change, culture of accountability and measure of impact have not only transformed their respective sphere of influences, but also strengthened my individual philanthropic work.
You could imagine that a very exciting world of ideas opened up to Agha and me when we started serving on the Leadership Council of MIT’s Public Service Center (PSC) in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Among its several service initiatives, PSC runs IDEAS Global Challenge, an annual invention and entrepreneurship competition for innovative service projects that positively impact underserved communities. After getting involved with PSC, I soon realized they had never funded a project in Turkey. My high school, Robert College, had the facilities to accommodate MIT’s needs and thus a project with a rather lengthy name was born: remediation of carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty and poorly installed furnaces. This collaborative project was especially exciting to all those involved because it strived to address the root of the problem rather than just treat symptoms.
Since 2012, I have also been serving on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of Turkish Philanthropy Funds (TPF), an organization very close to my heart. Founded by five successful Turkish-Americans eight years ago and led by Haldun Tashman & Özlenen Kalav, TPF strives to increase giving, maximize its impact in Turkey, and make it easier for the Turkish diaspora to give back in a transparent and accountable way. Our aim at TPF is to take philanthropy beyond the “feel good” and into significant and measurable impact. TPF supported over 40 NGOs through US$13 million in grants in 59 Turkishcities so far. Over 2000 donors are joined by trusted voices in the Turkish media such as Jülide Ateş, Mithat Bereket as well as intellectual and athletic leaders, Ambassador Üner Kirdar and Nasuh Mahruki to change lives by alleviating poverty, furthering education, empowering women and increasing disaster-preparedness using TPF’s expertise and platform. As a result, TPF enables the whole Turkish community to participate and benefit from the collective power and coordination of important strategic and sustainable projects.
Finally, one of the most significant gifts I have ever given is the gift of life itself. In 2011, when my friend’s son was diagnosed with leukemia, I took an active role in organizing education and outreach drives with the help of Delete Blood Cancer, a non-profit organization, to increase the volunteers in the bone marrow registry. In 2013, I donated bone marrow after matching another leukemia patient and now I am thrilled to get acquainted with this patient who has his health back. The gift of life rarely comes up in the philanthropic sphere but to me it is one of the most significant acts of philanthropy.
Philanthropy leads to self-fulfillment. I am a living testimony to that. It also helps you spread the most important humanistic values to your children, family, friends and community and reshape the world for better. It is the thread that connects people in far continents. Hence philanthropy is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
I thank you for reading my story and I hope you will accept my gift of inspiration.