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Why Philanthropy?

By Marie LeBlanc, Catalogue Community Partnerships Coordinator

As a relative newcomer to the sector, I often ponder the “big picture” of philanthropy. Coming from a social science background, I find it tempting to sort all of society’s actors into two categories: market or state, business or government. But philanthropic and nonprofit organizations fill a void between the two that defies simple categorization. Government and business’ roles in society are mostly accepted and understood (forgive me for by-passing the partisan debate on the purpose of government) — but philanthropy is a bit more complicated. Why does philanthropy exist in the first place, and how will philanthropy grow and continue to evolve in the future? What new voids will open that philanthropy can best fill?

I found intriguing answers to these questions in a few pieces of news this week. One, authored by Michael Moody and published in the Nonprofit Quarterly blog, explored the issue mentioned above — whether it’s most helpful to consider philanthropy solely in the dualistic terms of the state and market. Moody argues that the dualist perspective might not be the most helpful, and suggests focusing instead on the positive and unique attributes that philanthropy offers as a field. Consider his short-list of things that philanthropy is uniquely good at:

- Building individual and community capacity
- Raising awareness
- Empowering citizens through engagement
- Facilitating collaboration across social divides or institutional animosities
- Highlighting social injustice
- Experimenting with new solutions (that other sectors might take to scale) and providing the data needed for better decisions by all sectors

I agree with this list, and I think most would agree that each attribute represents an important contribution to social improvement. However, another example of philanthropy in the news this week offers a different attribute, one that focuses on the levity and joy integral to successful philanthropic work.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published a feature on the Awesome Foundation. This three-year-old foundation was created with the goal of funding small-scale projects that simply “forwarded the interest of awesomeness in the universe.” Since its inception, the Awesome Foundation has attracted widespread attention and support, including grants from major national foundations. While the concept of ‘awesomeness’ is open to interpretation, founder Tim Hwang “likes to think of ‘awesomeness’ as having the capacity to surprise and delight.”

In addition, around half of the projects funded by the foundation now address pressing social issues, from hygiene and sanitation in Africa to food (in)security around the world. While its professed mission might sound too lighthearted for serious thought, the Awesome Foundation clearly meets a need in society that neither government nor businesses exist to fill — and in doing so, expands the idea of what creative philanthropy can contribute to society. After all, who can’t use a bit more “surprise and delight” in their life?

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