Billionaire Robert F. Smith’s announcement in May that he would pay off the student loans of the nearly 400 young men graduating from Morehouse College made headlines around the world. But this gift, estimated to be worth $40 million, was not his first. The founder of Vista Equity Partners and the Fund II Foundation, Mr. Smith gave a $20-million donation in 2016 to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Most recently, his foundation established InternX, to provide paid science, technology, engineering or mathematics internships for ethnically underrepresented groups of students.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Smith said his passion for giving was nurtured during his childhood; the result of watching his mother write a monthly check for $25 to the United Negro College Fund.
Mr. Smith’s donations are phenomenal examples of giving to the arts and education. At the same time, I think it’s important that we not be discouraged if we don’t have millions of dollars to donate to the arts, education or our passion projects. As a matter of fact, we should keep in mind the story of the late Oseola McCarty, who never got past the sixth grade and worked as a washerwoman in Mississippi. Over the course of her lifetime of being paid in coins and dollar bills she saved $150,000 and, at the age of 87, donated it to provide scholarships for African-American college students.
How do we cultivate a culture of giving? The truth is anyone with a heart, conviction and commitment can make a difference! In an interview with Arts & Culture Connections earlier this year, Reggie Van Lee said: “Most people have some type of resource they can contribute to the health and sustainability of an organization. Everybody can give something. All those little somethings add up to a big something. Identify what you love and make that your platform for giving.”
Those points were reaffirmed by all of the speakers at “A Gathering of Givers,” a program held in March on International Women’s Day at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). The event was hosted by the Women’s Association, in conjunction with the Community Foundation of New Jersey and Impact100 Essex, with support from 15 organizations, including Association of Black Women Lawyers, Bibliophiles, Executive Women of New Jersey, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey, Latinas in Business Inc., National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc. (Bergen/Passaic Chapter), North Jersey Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., and Alpha Kappa Alpha – Cluster IV.
NJPAC Women’s Association began 25 years ago with nine women. Today, under the leadership of its President Marcia Wilson Brown, the Women’s Association has 2,500 members who volunteer their time, and raise or donate money in support of NJPAC’s mission.
During the gathering, NJPAC Women’s Association Managing Director Sarah Rosen noted that women are extraordinarily generous, no matter their circumstances. As a matter of fact, she said, they tend to be more generous than men—not just in terms of donating money but also becoming actively involved in the organizations they support. And Ms. Brown, who works at Rutgers University as Vice Chancellor of Governmental and Community Relations, reminded the women that through their efforts they have the power to make a difference in the world.
The additional speakers, including New Jersey’s first lady Tammy Murphy, represented a broad cross-section of large, small and family foundations; nonprofits, and corporations. They shared their visions, missions, traditions, success stories and struggles. You’ll find a wonderful report about it at this link.
I was particularly inspired by the experience shared by Hali Lee of the Donors of Color Network. Her philanthropy program is based on the Korean tradition of “geh,” a community savings group to which everyone donates as much as possible and then collectively decides how the money will be spent. In the case of her group, its efforts are purely philanthropic—they currently donate to Asian women and girls who use the arts for social change. Just imagine the number of programs community collectives could fund, especially for youth, based on this concept.
As the speakers outlined during this gathering, there are many ways that we can give. I believe that becoming an audience member is just the first step. To sustain and advance the arts requires that we all go the extra mile—volunteering, donating or even fund-raising. Individual, as well as community-based philanthropy, is essential to building a solid foundation for the future of the arts and for cultivating a culture of giving.