Philanthropy as an Act of (Sometimes Unrequited) Love

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By Sharon Rice, Director of Community Relations, Generocity, and Steering Committee Member, EPIP-Philadelphia

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”  

--Lao Tzu

My first job out of graduate school was as a therapist for children in foster care.  One day, I had a conversation with a client that changed my life forever.

During a session, he told me he never wanted to know anyone like me again. That he wanted to get married, have children and make sure that his family would never have to know someone like me.  He said he wanted more for his life and theirs, and that I was part of a system that would hold him back.

I was deeply hurt.  I loved my clients, and poured my whole self into that work. In my mind, his statement was a condemnation of me as a therapist and as a person.  But later, as I pored through my notes and his comments, I realized that it wasn’t about me: He had developed the strength to say what he needed to say and become who he wanted to become.  It was now my job to let go.

To me, the courage to love unconditionally – even when that love is rebuffed – is a defining characteristic of philanthropy.

However, I’ve struggled for years with how best to express that love.  I nearly dropped out of grad school because I couldn’t marry my deeper desire to participate significantly in the lives of many while working in direct service.  As a social worker, I was embedded in systems that limited my ability to benefit any given person.  I’ve since left social work to become Director of Community Relations at Generocity, a platform that connects leaders in business, nonprofits and communities to accelerate social change.  It’s a pretty big departure from social work, and I plan to move farther in that direction over time.  I’m on my way to expressing my love for humanity – my philanthropos – in a way that is true to who I am.

As we all find our way in the world of philanthropy and social change, we have to have the courage to listen to the conversations that may devastate us, and know when to let go without discarding the love that binds us together.  At the same time, it is also incumbent upon our broader industry to look at itself a little deeper, to challenge established orthodoxies that deny our common humanity and ingenuity, to have the courage to acknowledge when it’s not about us, and yes, to love a little more.

** ** Sharon Rice is Director of Community Relations at Generocity, a platform for social good in Greater Philadelphia, and a member of the EPIP-Philadelphia Steering Committee.  Sharon grew up in Burlington County, NJ and has spent most of her adult life getting to know Philly.  She is a proud alum of Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Social Research and is a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) in Pennsylvania.  Her interests include community development, philanthropy, and improving the foster care system.  Sharon is the Global Mission Director at The Connect Church, a self-proclaimed movie critic, bicyclist, and generally hilarious. Follow Sharon on Twitter