It’s always interesting as I read books throughout the year how one will stand out as being the one to beat as my favorite. Because I mostly read fiction, it’s even more interesting that the one that’s having the biggest impact on me this year is a non-fiction book.
I always thought of a philanthropist as someone who got a college dorm or hospital wing named after them. We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman provides an amazing look into the role of philanthropy in our lives. While the act of fundraising and the need for money in philanthropic activities is never discounted by Gunderman, he makes a brilliant case for the fact that we are all philanthropists. I love the term he uses, “amateur philanthropist”. The term is not used with any sort of condescension; in fact, he encourages philanthropic activities to be born out of ordinary people’s imagination as they move step-by-step into lives characterized by an ever increasing generosity – regardless of how much money they may have.
As listed in the book, Gunderman’s credentials include Vice Chairman, Radiology; Director Pediatric Radiology; and Associate Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The book consists of 22 essays in which he pulls information and insight from this vast background in Medicine and Education.
The theme of a community of people of all backgrounds coming together in generosity to make the world a better place recurs throughout many of the essays. Gunderman’s idea of philanthropy takes Lao-Tse’s well-known proverb a step further:
Give a person a fish, and we feed him for a day. Teach a person to fish, and we feed him for a lifetime. Share with a person the joy of helping others learn to fish, and we enable him to participate in a goodness that transcends any particular lifetime.
How we go about sharing the experience of “helping others learn to fish” takes more than just money according to Gunderman:
Our most important philanthropic resource is our imagination, our dreams. What do we think is possible? What purposes larger than ourselves are we capable of discerning and working on behalf of?
Recently, I experienced a little bit of this “community” when my wife and kids raised money for the charitable organization, Kids Against Hunger. Within walking distance from where we live, there are several fast food restaurants, gas stations, beauty salons, grocery stores and medical offices. When the owners and managers of these businesses were asked by my wife and kids if they would like to donate anything – whether money directly to the cause or gift cards for drawings at the fundraising event- the overwhelmingly positive response made me think that they understood this was more than just about getting a little bit of advertising. It seemed that they understood, even in a small way, that this was what a community was all about and they were very eager to work together to feed children half-way across the world.
While I could go essay by essay and reveal all of the nuggets of truth in this book, it would be better for me to simply say “read the book”! A couple of the essays stood out to me. “The Good Samaritan” takes Jesus’ well-known story from Luke 10 and beautifully applies it to the potential we have for generosity in today’s philanthropic climate. I’ve always been fascinated with Jesus’ ability as a storyteller – but that’s probably something for a different post. “Lessons from the Least “gives examples of human worth from a friend of Gunderman’s who works with mentally-disabled people.
Frequently, he touches on a topic that is near and dear to me: reading. Specifically, he points to the reading of fiction resulting in a better understanding of the aspirations we all have as human beings. Much of the world (or my world, anyway) views fiction as unimportant entertainment. I found it refreshing for someone with Richard Gunderman’s educational pedigree to grasp the fact that, as an example, “some gain invaluable insight into the human significance of poverty” from reading Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. He uses numerous examples from the Bible, Homer and other literary works to support and illustrate his points.
It’s difficult to do justice to such a wonderful book in a blog post; however, I thought I would be more remiss in not trying.