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Commentary: The Philanthropy Project gets ready for lift-off

In small groups, we challenged each other about our interpretation and notions related to philanthropy. We agreed the word was not well understood, and many remained convinced that philanthropy means "large gifts of money."

When a group of women from Banff and Canmore met last November, we discussed the word “philanthropy” – it was, in fact, the reason we had assembled – to celebrate National Philanthropy Day.

Our range in ages was wide, our mix of interests and perspectives was equally broad, and we were meeting each other for the first time. A simple invitation had been extended to women of the Bow Valley to join us on Nov. 15.

There were no expectations, no pre-requisites and to the relief of everyone, there was "no ask." Three individuals and three local organizations generously covered all costs for the evening.

Generally, we agreed that the word “philanthropist” conjures an image of a person of high net worth who is civic minded and has the capacity to make large charitable donations.

It is fantastic that individuals and corporations support Canada’s health, education, recreation, arts and cultural institutions with significant gifts. Large gifts can be transformative, they are newsworthy and enrich the fabric of our lives, but that wasn’t a word to describe "us."

The definition of philanthropy that I have been using in this column over the past seven months is: practical acts of kindness that actively work to help humanity.

Canada’s National Philanthropy Day Act, the reason we were celebrating that evening states: “… philanthropy is the spirit of giving without expectations of reward … philanthropy helps build strong communities and active civic participation by bringing people together to serve a common goal.”

In small groups, we challenged each other about our interpretation and notions related to philanthropy. We agreed the word was not well understood, and many remained convinced that philanthropy means "large gifts of money."

Then someone spoke up, ready to defend the word with genuine warmth and a passion that electrified the room. She declared, “Philanthropy is actually a really good word that comes from the Greek. I don’t know how it has lost its way, but it’s a combination of two words: philos meaning friend and anthropos meaning human. It literally means doing a friendly act that shows love and compassion. Sharing to help humanity.”

The room sat, quietly absorbing these words.

Ironically, after deciding we weren’t talking about "big money," Melinda Gates’ name was mentioned. Melinda and her husband Bill are co-founders of the world’s largest private foundation with assets of around $50 Billion.

Bajillionaires, yes, but the reason for mentioning her name? Gates is a leading example of a philanthropist who is tackling difficult topics directly, passionately and with fierce commitment.

With the focus on women and children, the Gates Foundation is challenging tenets of faith, public policy and issues that are deeply personal. Combining her African and American experiences, Gates is tackling women’s issues, abortion, reproductive rights, eager to support women and families in life affirming ways.

Her book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, was released in 2019.

Obviously, money is an important piece of the philanthropic pie. But money is the crust, not the filling.

Money can distract and obscure the focus for exceptionally important social goals. Used well, money can accelerate the pace of change and broaden the scope of success for good work.

The consensus that evening was – let’s meet again.

Our small working committee has set two more dates for the Philanthropy Project. While the location is still to be determined, we will meet Jan. 20 and March 24 5-7 p.m. 

If you are a forward thinking, open-minded, big-hearted, curious and caring woman of the Bow Valley interesting in boosting your philanthropic power button in 2020, send me an email.

Over the years, Lorraine Widmer-Carson has worked for Parks Canada, the Whyte Museum, the Friends of BNP, the Banff Centre, and until June 2017, as Executive Director of the Banff Canmore Community Foundation. She and her growing family (including two remarkable granddaughters) celebrated 40 years of owning and operating Ticino Restaurant in 2019. The views expressed are her own and she can be reached at [email protected].

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