Seeing Ourselves as Philanthropists

By Jennifer Rinella

For the past few semesters, students in my Introduction to Nonprofit Organizations class have written a philanthropic autobiography. The seed was planted for this assignment on the first day of class, when I asked students if they considered themselves philanthropists. Not a single hand raised. We began reading Payton and Moody’s Understanding Philanthropy to consider what “love of humankind” and “voluntary action for the public good” really mean and to unpack the values inherent in acts of philanthropy.

Through book discussions, students begin to realize that philanthropy is a crucial element of our moral, political, and social heritage – regardless of race, religion, orientation. In telling their own stories, students reflect on their earliest and most impactful experiences as receivers, observers, and givers of love in action.

Often beginning with family traditions or grade school requirements and continuing through service learning, community leadership, and advocacy activities, students’ experiences of philanthropy range from charity to investment. They have personally experienced grace and mercy as recipients of others’ generosity - from the outpouring of support when a home burns down or a loved one passes away, to meals provided through a food pantry after a job loss, or even the gift of a college scholarship. They are moved by witnessing generous acts, whether seeing someone on the street remove their winter coat to give to another on a bitterly cold day, watching from afar as a famous figure donates millions to further medical research, or learning from the quiet examples of philanthropic role models in their own lives. Students also describe meaningful experiences of sharing their own time and friendship through volunteerism, using their voices to advocate for social justice, raising funds, and making sacrificial financial gifts to make the world better.

Their thoughtful reflections and realizations help to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” and offer powerful reminders of what it means to be human: We are all vulnerable. Each of us is called to love, mercy, and kinship. 

  • How are we called at each of our Jesuit colleges and universities to foster a sense of solidarity?

  • Do we think of ourselves as philanthropists?

  • How do we grapple with our own vulnerability – both in ourselves and in the neighbor in need?

Jennifer Rinella, EdD, is a Director and Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Leadership Studies at the Helzberg School of Management at Rockhurst University. She currently serves as a member of the National Seminar on Jesuit Education

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Inna Dee of the Flickr Creative Commons.