Publishers Letter

Is This Acceptable?

At this fall’s Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Conference held here in Charlotte and hosted by our very own Women’s Impact Fund, this distinction was made:

Charity and philanthropy are two different things.  Charity is a response to an acute need or crisis, a request from a friend, religious institution, or college, for example.  You give, but you don't know the particular impact of the gift. Philanthropy is a long-term commitment; it is an investment in which you are seeking a solution to a problem. You may not see results for some time, but your intent is to have impact.

It was during an act of charity that I realized the importance of this distinction. In seeking help and assistance for a chronically homeless single mother of five children, I became acquainted with what that label really looks like and the obstacles there are to progressing out of that condition.

What homelessness looks like for this single mother is sleeping on the living room floor of a two-bedroom home with 13 other adults residing there. Homelessness looks like staying awake all night to watch over your children to ensure one of those adults who are abusing drugs doesn’t harm them. It looks like boiling a pot of water for all six of you to bathe with twice a week, or paying a neighbor to allow your family to shower there. When someone brings your family groceries to try and help, homelessness looks like hiding the food in a plastic storage bin in the woods to make sure no one else in the overcrowded home takes it. Homelessness looks like having to keep the little clothes your family has outside in plastic garbage bags because there is no room for it where you are staying. It looks like dragging those plastic bags on the bus once a month to a laundromat.

Perhaps I was naïve to be horrified by these conditions. My real naiveté though came from thinking I could easily secure them help. With every charitable resource within my daily work, surely I could find them a solution.

The plain truth is that I could not. At least not through those channels. Sadly, the quantity of homelessness is greater than the resources we currently have to address it. When approaching most of the wonderful and legitimately helpful programs we have in our city, one is met with phrases such as “at capacity” or “24 month waiting list” or “doesn’t qualify.”

Even more distressing though are the few programs which, despite their glamorous fundraising and often celebrated status in the community, are actually doing very little to meet the needs of those they claim to serve.

Which brings me back to the distinction between charity and philanthropy. If philanthropy is a long term investment in which one seeks a solution to problem, those in the community that are making those investments must understand how those investments are being used. It means more than looking at an organization’s 990 filing to make certain that leadership isn’t paid so handsomely that they can afford a membership to Quail Hollow. As it was described at the WCGN Conference, philanthropy means being actively involved in the process of creating sustainable, attainable, measurable solutions to problems.

Research from Harvard University and the Treasury Department have shown that the ability to climb out of poverty are worse in Charlotte than in almost any other major city in America. We must do better. In many ways we are – Housing First, Urban Ministry Center, the Renaissance West Community Initiative, and the very impactful Communities in Schools are prime examples.

But until all the children in our community are able to keep food in their homes instead of hiding it in the woods, we will have not done enough.


In Service,

Amanda Pagliarini Howard