Spotting a Philanthropist

Spotting a Philanthropist

By: Megan McGee, Associate Director UMFWPA

 The following is the first of a series of three articles intended to help churches enhance the experience of their donors.

What makes someone a philanthropist? Traditionally, we have come to associate the title “philanthropist” with wealthy individuals who give large sums of money to causes they support; famous figures like Andrew Carnegie, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates. Every church wants one. What many churches do not realize is that they may already have a congregation full of them. And they may not be showing them the gratitude they deserve.

My Great Aunt and Great Uncle were both high school gym teachers. They lived in a tiny house in Monroeville. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II (my uncle serving under General Patton). They were humble and lived frugally. Their basement was full of stockpiled canned goods and plastic bags saved from trips to the grocery store. My Aunt never owned a designer purse, she never drove a fancy car, she never wore expensive jewelry, they never had new furniture or big screen televisions. To meet her on the street one would never assume that she was well off. To hear that she was a career teacher would confirm the improbability of such an assumption.

When she passed away, her pastor told this story at the funeral service. He said… Jeanne was helping out at a church dinner around Christmastime. Another member of the congregation commented how much she liked the holiday sweater that Jeanne was wearing. She thanked the woman, a friend, and then disappeared before reappearing wearing a different sweater. She was carrying the holiday sweater in her hand and presented it to the woman who had admired it, opting instead for a sweater from the lost and found pile in the church office.

She was the epitome of a philanthropist.

Merriam-Webster defines a philanthropist as one “who makes an active effort to promote human welfare”. That’s not bad, but I like to look to the ancient Greek origin myself - someone who loves humankind. Someone who loves other people and puts the welfare of others ahead of his or her own. That is what Jesus did after all. 

Gifts to others do not need to be monetary and even philanthropists who do make monetary gifts to their church often give in many other ways - their time, resources and skills, in-kind donations (clothing, food) - sometimes these non-monetary donations are just as valuable, if not more valuable than the donation of funds. Why? Because they make the bonds within the congregation stronger.

I should also probably mention that when my aunt passed away she bequeathed to her alma mater the largest legacy gift in that University’s history. It was used to establish a scholarship fund for students like those she had taught and cared for deeply as a teacher. She also donated significant amounts to her church, to Phipps Conservatory, and to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.  

But these monetary gifts were not what truly made her a philanthropist. It was her love of others, her love of her church, her love of God, all coming before herself.

All types of philanthropists deserve to have the “philanthropic experience” and many times the experience gained through the donation of time, effort, and maybe a little holiday cheer setting up Christmas dinner, will lead to monetary donations - because serving together creates a feeling of community and kinship among active members of the congregation, it brings non-active members into the group, it inspires further generosity and provides an example to other members to also serve and also give. 

To inspire future philanthropy, it is necessary to ensure that philanthropists of all kinds experience the feelings of appreciation, inclusion, and love that they inspire in others.

If you would like to learn more about cultivating new donors or creating plan for donor appreciation within your church community, contact the United Methodist Foundation at 412-232-0650.