Sunday, March 2, 2008

Giving Big Isn't Always Easy

I watched Oprah's Big Give last night. Me and approximately 16 million other people. Oprah told me I'd be "inspired" to give big myself. She promised America that giving big is "easy."

That's when Oprah lost me.

Making a positive difference in the life of another person doesn't have to be hard and it doesn't always have to cost money. With that, I agree. But watching 10 people handpicked by Oprah's lackeys, running around unknown cities, raising thousands of dollars during the course of just a couple of days for causes already screened by television producers, makes real philanthropy look deceivingly simple. Not to mention that corporate sponsors are, of course, going to pony up with a single phone call when they've got Oprah's platform to tout their good deeds.

In real life, philanthropy doesn't work that way. It's full of rejection and disappointment, just as often as it is filled with utter joy and fulfillment. The average charity--often run by people with deep knowledge, unrelenting passion, and pure hearts--doesn't have the most powerful woman in America backing its endeavor to do good in this world. Cold calling corporations for sponsorships and approaching donors and foundations for crucial funds is hard. Plain and takes a ridiculous amount of time, energy, and tenacity to build support for a cause, no matter how much it may help the world's neediest people.

Maybe I'm a little touchy right now. I'm part of a committee that's deciding where to invest all the donations we collected during our first season of Race with Purpose. Our team raised almost $90,000 when all was said and done, and we put that money in a separate Race with Purpose fund at a private foundation. The investment committee of five team members has been devoted since October to finding the charities most closely aligned with our mission to help under-served children lead healthy, active lives.

To be blunt, the process has been exhausting. We have been rigorous in our research to ensure that our money is going to organizations that have the best shot at being successful and using our funds to have measurable, meaningful impact on the kids they serve. We created our grant-making process from scratch, writing an application, inviting our list of 20 possible grantees, getting in touch with all of them, reading through each application, and finally narrowing our choices down to four groups, all of which we then interviewed on the phone.

During the course of this experience, it was astounding to me how many charities are out there doing so many compelling things. Our "final four" is presenting us with a difficult decision, because all of them are deserving of our support. I guess the upside is that there doesn't seem to be a "wrong" decision. In the end, there are some kids out there who will inevitably live better because of the money our team raised. There is something unbelievably satisfying about that.

I don't fault Oprah for giving this reality show a whirl. The less cynical side of me truly believes that anything that can get more people to be selfless, to care about those in need, to live for something bigger than themselves, is a fantastic idea. I hope it works and I do hope that people are moved to do more good in their communities, or at the very least reach out to a friend could use support and do what you can to help. God knows you don't have to look too far to find somebody who could benefit from your kindness and concern.

My inspiration comes from the amazing committee of Race with Purpose members who have given their time, intelligence, and work ethic to help underprivileged kids--and the organizations that are doing the real work to make it happen.

And I am continually in awe of and grateful to the organization that set me on this path to begin with: Penn State Dance Marathon (Thon), the largest student-run philanthropy in the nation. Once again this year, thousands of Penn State students dedicated themselves to helping the families of children battling cancer at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Those students just raised a record $6,615,318.04 for the Four Diamonds Fund last weekend, meeting the challenge with the same spirit and enthusiasm they bring to the biggest Nittany Lion football games. As our beloved JoePa says of Thon, "This is what they mean when they say, 'We are Penn State.'"

Watch this snippet on CBS from my senior year of college...and be inspired.


1 comment:

Javier said...

The Thon is inspiring, and yes fundraising is hard work, which is why I am awed that there are people out there like everyone at Race with Purpose, who do this on their own initiative.