Patrick Harman by Patrick Harman

I was recently meeting with a grantee — something I often do as the executive director of a private foundation. Because grantmaking is a peculiar business, I often summarize my job by telling people I give away money for a living. Invariably, they ask me if I can give them some. But giving away money is serious business as anyone who has ever given a donation to a charity knows. Everyone wants his donation to be used as effectively as it can be. Part of my job is to make sure the foundation’s money is used wisely.

Thus, the purpose of meeting with the grantee was to provide me with an update on a newly implemented initiative that is aimed at asset creation for former clients of the department of social services. Participants take a series of financial-literacy classes, get a handle on their budget and obligations, begin to save a small amount of money every month and decide on a long-term goal for their nest eggs.

Over a two-year period, this monthly savings is matched by the foundation. After graduating from the program, participants utilize some of their savings to achieve their long-term goals. The ultimate goal for the participants is self-sufficiency. This initiative is very exciting to me because it gets at the heart of what our foundation tries to achieve: helping to make positive, lasting change.

This grant also encapsulates what I love most about working in the charitable sector: This sector is fundamentally about trust. When a person makes a donation to a charity, she is saying, “I trust you enough to give you this money because I believe that you will use it wisely and make the world a better place.” In turn, when the organization’s staff is working with a client, they are saying, “We are working with you because we trust that you need what this organization can give.” This process links the donor to the staff to the client.

Thus, our humanity becomes interconnected.

This is not about a Pollyanna vision of the world. Everyone should not be trusted and we probably all should not be trusted in all things. After all, it’s hard to resist that last cookie that someone might want to eat later. But that certainly does not mean that hardly anyone should be trusted or that most people are out to get something for nothing.

When you make that donation, you are siding with our better nature as human beings. And that’s the side we need more of. That’s the side that we need to nurture and trust if we are truly going to make this world a better place for people we love and for people we don’t even know and may never meet. People we may not even like.

Over the past few years, the charitable sector has seen phenomenal growth, both nationally and internationally. In fact, two recent Nobel Peace Prize recipients have worked in charitable organizations on two different continents. There are new trends and new types of giving. The internet has connected donors to charitable organizations around the world. It is an exciting time for the field and I want to share some of this excitement in future columns.

The general public has only a cursory understanding of charitable organizations (and the wider field of nonprofits) and how they operate. For example, the Internal Revenue Service has more than 20 different designations for nonprofit organizations, only one of which is designated “charitable”. Through my columns, I want to increase this level of understanding.

I also want to inspire folks to become more involved in our community. There are opportunities for you to make a difference, even in the simplest of ways. For example, in late 2004, the High Point Museum conducted the Just a Dollar campaign, raising $15,000 to restore the historic Hoggatt House which had been severely damaged by lightning. The museum ultimately received more than $20,000 in donations. Twenty-five percent of the total number of donors gave $5 or less and 75 percent gave $25 or less. These small amounts totaled about 25 percent of the campaign goal, a significant amount. More importantly, it allowed these High Pointers to demonstrate that their museum was important to them.

There are also leaders who are making or who have made significant positive impact on the world. James Grant, the head of UNICEF, launched the Child Survival Revolution during the 1980s that increased the worldwide vaccination rate from 20 percent to 80 percent. Grant helped to prevent millions of childhood deaths and childhood disabilities such as blindness and polio.

Florence Nightingale’s efforts helped to reduce the British army hospital death rate from 43 percent to 2 percent during the Crimean War. Nightingale was instrumental in transforming nursing into a modern profession.

Maybe, I can even inspire some of you to accomplish such fantastic feats.

Patrick Harman is executive director of the Hayden-Harman Foundation, which “benefits philanthropy, voluntarism and grantmaking foundations, focusing specifically on private independent foundations programs.”

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