November 20th, 2014
Powerful Giving Isn’t Always Big Giving
I learned the values of humble generosity and living in moderation early on from my family. My parents were wonderfully philanthropic in untraditional ways (and traditional ones too). My father is a terrific organizer; our house was always filled with people doing letter-writing campaigns for progressive political campaigns and environmental justice. My mother is passionate about international healthcare and feminism. They had a diverse group of friends in terms of age and class to whom they were incredibly generous in dynamic and thoughtful ways. My parents were transparent in discussions with me around budgets, allowance and their own giving. However, when it came to talking about the mysterious funds that covered extra expenses like my dance classes or pending private college tuition, the conversation stopped. My parents didn’t want to warp my sense of self by letting me know I would inherit a trust fund.
I’m not exactly sure what I’d do differently when/if I have my own children, but I like to think that I wouldn’t put so much weight on secret-keeping. I remember when I first learned of some highly influential wealthy people in my ancestry and in the same breath was told explicitly not to tell anyone. It was tough being a nine-year-old hiding things from my friends.
I came into my inheritance in my final year of college, as I was voraciously learning about different forms of oppression and frustrated with the absence of discussions around classism and economic inequality. My studies conditioned me to be hell-bent on the principle that communities affected by injustice are the experts on their own liberation, and should lead the organizing and fights for justice. As a wealthy white person, I felt lost as to what my place should be in meaningfully working for social justice.
Then I came across a “blog” by Tyrone, a person around my age also working on money issues as a person with wealth. Tyrone was a member of Resource Generation (RG). When I clicked on the link to RG I said, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe there are other young, radical, people my age with money who seem so open about it.” It was a light bulb moment. RG was the first time I felt truly comfortable sharing my personal experiences as a person with wealth who believes in social justice. Simultaneously I was challenged to deeply question what US society had taught me to believe about class, economics, and injustice, and to take action with my money and privilege.
Wealth can be a taboo and often divisive topic. For this reason, I took time and energy to try and be a thoughtful philanthropist and invested a lot of time into creating a giving plan, including consulting with close friends and advisers on “best practices” of how to give, and where.
As a result of outlining my giving plan, most of my giving goes to grassroots organizations with budgets less than $750,000 that are fighting for justice. Several of them are specifically by and for LGBTQ people, mostly of color – one of the most severely under-funded areas of work, receiving less than 1% of philanthropic dollars annually. A couple are within indigenous communities, fighting for their rights and the rights of their ancestral lands and resources. Many of them are national organizations but all have a sharp analysis that local “hubs” and connections are key to making impactful change. I give one big gift annually to a consensus-based giving circle that funds criminal justice reform and prison abolition across the US and includes several decision-makers who are formerly incarcerated themselves. I also give big to RG, because I want other young people with wealth and privilege to have access to the same loving community and kick in the butt as I did.
Over the past 6 years I will have given or pledged to give away close to $500,000 of the $600,000 I inherited. With the remainder, I am considering buying a house in my hometown, and potentially go to school to become a children’s librarian.
The process of creating a giving plan brought up a lot of rich (no pun intended) and intense conversation amongst my family and friends about responsibility. Creating a giving plan was a major step in clarifying my own thinking on this, and moving me toward giving big.
I worked on my first plan for almost a year until a friend told me to “stop finessing and start doing.” To this day, my friends and mentors hold me accountable to being a bold giver; particularly the close and deep relationships with friends and mentors from poor, working, and middle class backgrounds that I’ve built through my participation at RG.
My giving plan not only helped me calculate what feels like enough to live on, to save, and to give, it helped me realize and deeply believe that I will be ok without my inherited wealth. Moreover, actually, that I am part of a strong community and family that will take care of each other, that I am capable of developing skills and earning a living, and that having more wealth than most other people in the world keeps me separate and isolated. Actively giving away my inherited wealth also has helped me confront my profound discomfort about where it came from – slavery, mining, international trade (directly or indirectly). I had no say on how my ancestors earned our money, but I do have control over what I do with it.
With the money still in my name, I have divested it all from the mainstream stock market; about two thirds of it is in several community loan funds. This is one version of “impact investing” – instead of just sitting in a bank account (or worse, making money on itself by being invested in exploitative companies like Coca-Cola or Exxon-Mobil), this money is being loaned out at zero or low interest to cooperative non-profits in New England, women-owned businesses in Durham, NC, and affordable housing in New York City.
I still have struggles around being a bold giver. I’m constantly challenged by the questions: should I give bigger gifts to fewer organizations or smaller gifts to more groups? If I decide to buy a house, go to grad school, or have children, will I regret giving away as much as I am? And yes, I still have big and deep insecurities that people only want to be friends with me because I have money.
My advice to others who have financial resources is three-fold:
- Examine your feelings head-on, whether they are excitement, guilt, shame or pride.
- Critically think about where profit (wealth) comes from, whether you earned wealth yourself, inherited it, or built it from investing in the stock market: How are you profiting off the work you are doing or not doing? Who else is laboring, or what other resources are being used, that need compensation? This includes everything from un- and under-paid workers to the exploitation of natural resources to the legacy of US slavery and the racial wealth divide.
- Act! Be rigorous, get lots of advice from social justice change-makers, ask lots of questions, take risks. Be plan-ful. Give back. Don’t wait until you have it perfect. Write a check that seems too big. Do the personal work along with the check-writing. Don’t be in therapy for 20 years before you start giving the money away. Don’t give only because you feel guilty or are trying to be altruistic. Do the personal work of really being able to deeply know why redistributing wealth is in your best interest, too. Be open, clear, and willing to talk about money. Be willing to be pitched to. Be open to saying no or yes.
How do I keep these huge things from overwhelming me? I love to dance (especially to Beyonce and Robyn), bake bread, ride my bike, walk the neighborhoods of New York with my friends, and work the NY Times crossword puzzles. I try to take a long-range view on life.
I’ve been involved with RG since 2008 and I’m now the Executive Director. I love helping wealthy young people leverage their resources and privilege for social change. We promote funding work that looks at root causes; changing systems that make people go hungry to begin with instead of being satisfied with just dolling out bread. We want to understand the structural causes behind issues of inequality and injustice, and find new ways to support systems-level change that don’t perpetuate funder/grantee dynamics that maintain the power and control with the funder. Mostly, we want to be a part of creating and supporting a world for our children and their children in which land, wealth, and power are shared, and everyone has enough to survive and thrive. This is completely possible.