Philanthropists aren’t defined by big-money gifts. Rather, you become one by examining your values and finding the cause that moves you enough to dedicate your money and/or skills to it. So far no big whoop, right?
But here’s the critical piece: After identifying that cause, you ought to carefully consider whether the investment you’ve chosen can actually move the needle. Will your involvement make a difference? If so, is that difference enough to make you feel the investment is worthwhile?
These are hard questions to answer. And only you have the right one. As one advisor puts it, “Philanthropy is as individual and deeply personal as the person doing the giving. There are no real rules, like there are for being a good investor. We don’t have metrics for being a good giver.”
Still, while the rewards may be individual, the steps of involvement have an echo. That is, one charitable act leads to another and then others, which motivates greater engagement. Soon, we want our contributions to count more, to be strategic.
As women develop skills and money, our attention to shifting to worldwide problems that affect us intimately. “In the past five years, I have seen more emphasis on causes that relating to women and children, says Ann Lurie, who pledged, both privately and through her Chicago-based Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation, a staggering $108 million dollars to charity in 2007. “ Women are better caretakers and stewards of their giving, more hands-on.”
One of the country’s leading donors, Lurie consistently earns top rankings on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the 50 most generous Americans. “Long before I had a checkbook for what’s described as ‘transformational philanthropy,’ I learned at a young age that being helpful in some way to someone who needs help can produce a lot of personal gratification,” she says. “My mother said I should do a good deed daily, and she gave me some examples. So I started doing that at a fairly young age. It was the high point of my day.”
In the mid-’80s, Lurie, a registered nurse, and her husband Robert, the business partner of real estate investment baron Sam Zell, began thinking about philanthropy in a structured way. After setting up the foundation, they came up with a list of general areas to support. But in 1988, Robert developed; he died two years later. “We were partners and it’s been many years and still painful,” she says. With six children—”my youngest was five”—Lurie was determined to carry on.
Over the years, Lurie built on the list they made. “Primarily, I’ve chosen causes that stir me in some way and that also make me think my contributions can make a difference. It’s not always the case.”
Though she funds a variety of groups, Lurie focuses on two areas. Last year, she committed $100 million gift for a new children’s hospital in downtown Chicago. She also does extensive work in Africa. She has not only founded Aid Village Clinics, which provides healthcare to 90,000 people in southeast Kenya, but also built schools in Ethiopia and sponsored 25 Masai youngsters through high school and college. “I like to stay around and watch the evolution of the changes I’ve been able to make,” she says.
Through it all, Lurie says her childhood habit has stayed with her. “I walk a lot,” she says. “I often see people on Michigan Avenue wringing their hands over a map. So I walk up to them, say I live here and can I help. You get so much gratitude from pointing people in the right direction—just like righting things on a bigger scale.”