Conversations On Philanthropy
Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

We Make a Life by What We Give

Some books  enlighten us, some books inspire us, and some books challenge us to expand our  understanding of who we are and who we can become.  Richard Gunderman’s We Make a Life by What We Give does all three.

Dr. Gunderman addresses the issues  of philanthropy and the roles of generosity in our lives with stunning clarity,  and with a broad courage asks the wicked and necessary questions that many  authors avoid.  He begins by  distinguishing between our various models of philanthropy: the charity model  which often creates both dependency and resentment; the model of scientific  giving which deepens the distinctions between givers and recipients; and the  liberal model which enhances the flourishing of the giver as well as the  recipient.

From the first  chapter onward, the questions raised are critical to our understanding of what  the volunteer sector does and can do in our society.  These questions are elegant but challenging,  “Are the things that are easiest to quantify also the ones we most need to  know?” (4) and they should be points of discussion for everyone willing to  examine what they do and how they do it.

The highest aim of  philanthropy, says Gunderman, is to be transformational and inspirational  (28).  That in itself is a challenge to  workers in the nonprofit sector, let alone professionals in philanthropy.  In Chapter 6 “Egoism, Altruism and Service” a  thoughtful exploration of motivation clarifies why Gunderman feels many people  are bored with giving money, and why philanthropy must not be mere advocacy of  special interest groups, but service to the future (52, 68).

There is a fascinating  section in Chapter 11 “Materialist Philanthropy” which outlines the  particularity of the gift and critiques the divisiveness of conspicuous giving  (103).  On page 135, Gunderman clearly  challenges the entire sector by asking, “What is the bottom line of a  philanthropic organization?” Is it dollars raised?  Is it dollars disbursed?  Is it outcomes achieved?  The plethora of volunteer and nonprofit  groups in this country needs to wrestle with these questions in order to rise  to serving a purpose greater than survival.

A theme through  this engaging book which warrants far more attention across all disciplines is  the role of imagination in our generosity.   Gunderman manages the impossible by showing us applications of  curiosity, of hope, of love, and of suffering to more generous and purposeful  living.  Chapter 18 “Are we Hospitable?”  grounds the theoretical discussion in a practical and pragmatic reflection on  generosity within a hospital, and how caring and healing depend both on  imagination and curiosity.  This chapter  alone can contribute a new worldview to our healthcare industry.

Richard Gunderman  is erudite, but he wears his scholarship gracefully, elucidating Aristotle or  Homer or the Bible with engaging simplicity.   He is equally at home explaining a film, like Black Hawk Down, in terms of the themes of altruism, generosity and  suffering.  Not only does he himself see  the world with a new vision, but he enables us to view ourselves and our  particular worlds with that same vision, which for any author is a stunning  achievement.

As I came to the  end of the book I felt I had been served a banquet of wisdom, and shared that  banquet with a most charming host, but I also felt a sad concern that this book  will not reach the mass audience it deserves.   This is a clarion call for better philanthropy, for wiser living, for  more curious and imaginative engagement.   The book should not be confined to its label—philanthropic and nonprofit  studies—but read by all those seeking to lead a more meaningful life within communities  and organizations which cultivate human flourishing.  I would like to see the book in the hands of  every teacher, every person who is employed by or volunteers within a social  service entity, every faith-based organization seeking relevance to our common  good.

Near the end of  the book Gunderman writes, “our understanding of generosity reflects our  understanding of the world we inhabit” (191).  We Make a Life by What We Give reflects  the compassion, wisdom and inspiration in which we will find the angels of our  better nature.  It simply surpasses all  other books in the field, but more importantly, it expands our understanding of  the field of philanthropy and of ourselves and our potential.

Heather Wood Ion is a cultural  anthropologist, currently with Athena Charitable Trust, and a contributing editor to  Conversations on Philanthropy.

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