Monday, December 19, 2016

My Journey as a Philanthropist, Part 3

by Kat Birkenbeuel, Development Intern

There are so many articles out there trying to dissect the millennial brain when it comes to philanthropy. My generation is known for online engagement, valuing volunteer opportunities over donations and demanding transparency. We are idealistic dreamers.

But when the magnitude of need creeps in, so does the apathy. There are so many factors that affect the daily lives of those who are struggling to make ends meet. It can be discouraging. Can my $10 donation actually impact someone’s life? Apathy can be crippling. I am the first to admit it.

Recently I was able to attend a site visit and this experience gave me a different perspective.

On a regular Thursday morning, I hop off the L and walk down a rather typical street. I find myself in front of a brick building on a mild Chicago summer day. Walking inside, I glance around the cramped office, with desks covered in sticky notes and walls covered in color-coded white boards. A pretty ordinary space.

As we tour the building, we arrive in the early childhood classroom. Giggles of children bounce off the colorful walls as they proudly show off their newest artwork. A girl with big brown eyes looks up at us. I think of all the things her eyes have seen, yet she smiles and laughs and acts like any 4 year-old girl. It is then when I realize that this is no ordinary place.

The tour continues as we visit various English-learning classrooms and we are welcomed with smiles from parents, elderly and teenagers alike, all eager to show off their reading skills. Students’ eyes fill with pride as they correctly answer questions and speak with us.

The program coordinator explains that refugees are often illiterate in their first language, so trying to learn to read, write and comprehend things in a new, unfamiliar language is even more of a challenge. She articulates to us that if an individual, refugee or not, cannot read or write, they cannot fill out job applications, which means they have no paycheck. With no income, they cannot pay for a roof over their heads. With low literacy skills, they cannot help their children with school work or fill out health forms at the doctor.

That’s when I have this lightbulb moment. Social issues don’t happen in a vacuum, instead they compound on each other. Individuals and families in need in our communities aren’t just struggling with one thing- their struggles come at them from all sides. It’s a snowball effect.

My generation thinks that with so many problems in the world, their donation doesn’t matter. It won’t make a difference. It won’t solve everything. But once we realize that needs are interconnected, that thought changes. Yes, you can’t solve every problem in our world, but when you support someone in need in one aspect of their life, it helps them tenfold. Not every social issue is a cause, sometimes it is a symptom of something else. However, when we give our support, we start another snowball effect for the better.

As I wrote in part two of this series, just because you can’t give big, doesn’t mean that you can’t have an impact. You can give small once a month. You and your friends can decide to make a donation instead of getting each other holiday gifts. When you add up the collective impact you, or you and your friends, make throughout the course of a year, you are changing lives. Let’s revisit the story from the beginning of this post and see just how big of an impact one or two programs can have:

When a refugee organization provides stable housing to a family and English literacy courses, they are actually improving their quality of life. English literacy courses allow adults to find work. Stable housing allows children to focus on school and stay in a constant environment and not switch classrooms and districts from moving around. Employed parents are able to support their children with education and resources they need to succeed.

So yes, your donations can make a difference. Apathy aside, millennials do understand the issues troubling our society. Unlike previous generations, we don’t necessarily support organizations based on their popularity; we support issues that we care about and organizations who help change lives in these avenues.

When society starts looking at issues over organizations, there is a shift in thinking. Instead of donating to the organization with the most popularity, we should start donating to organizations who are doing the most innovative work - organizations who combine structural change with wraparound direct services.

Yes, there are a lot of problems in the world. But I believe we can fix them if we try. We might not be able to see our impact right away, but I promise you that you can make a difference when helping those who need it most.

This is the third part of a four-part series on my journey into philanthropy as a millennial. If you missed the first two installments, read part one or part two here.

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