Harvest: What Vines Teach Us About Philanthropy

The vines that were once heavy with fruit are now empty.  I feel a poignant tug at my heart when I see the empty vines after harvest.  Those who have given birth to a child or have sold a family business, know the great pride of accomplishment is mingled with feelings of joy, relief and then, perhaps, emptiness.  Now, I presume the vines do not have the same feelings we have, but if I were a vine, I’d feel incredibly proud of the grapes I produced and I would hope they would be used for a great wine that people would enjoy… and think of me.  (Remember The Giving Tree?)

Maybe it’s a stretch, but I think grapevines can teach us about philanthropy.  The word philanthropy comes from the compound Greek word philanthropos which was formed by the two words philein (to love) and anthropos (human being).  It came into general English use in the early 17th Century.  Merriam Webster defines philanthropy as “active effort to promote human welfare.”  Promoting human welfare sounds straightforward, but it’s trickier than we might imagine.  

Strategic philanthropy takes place in an environment of mutual respect and communication while working towards empowerment and sustainability. 

Right now, in Sonoma County, there are people in shelters, sleeping on cots and living out of bins and boxes, because their houses have burned to the ground.  Well-intentioned people, desiring to help the victims of the fires, are bringing all kinds of clothing and household goods to the shelters.  This sounds like it could be a beautifully generous, philanthropic story… but it’s not.  Instead of the stuff being helpful, it’s just taking up space at the shelters, and they are now turning away any would-be donors.  Inasmuch as the evacuees may want (and need!) stuff at some point, no one living in a shelter can manage a full closet of clothes or a full set of cookware.  What started out as a good idea has run amok.

There are at least three principles at work here. (Taken from Give Smart.)  

  1. All philanthropy is personal. Generous people are motivated by certain types of needs.  Some folks love supporting the arts; others are more interested in helping the disenfranchised, like those displaced by the fires; while others are inspired to give towards issues of poverty or hunger.
  2. The results of generosity can be confusing.  It’s disconcerting to see the donations of clothing and household items not being used.  It’s confusing to raise money for a well in a remote village and when it breaks down, the local people simply go back to carrying water from the river. 
  3. Excellence in philanthropy is self-imposed.  Even though there are a few examples of organizations that promote best practices in philanthropy, each donor must continually learn what it means to “give well” and promote human welfare.  If I took a bunch of used clothes to the shelters in Sonoma and saw that my bag was tossed onto a bigger heap of other unwanted clothing languishing in the corner, I might begin to wonder if a gift card to Target might have been a better way to help the young mom, who just needs diapers and a Pack-N-Play for her baby. If I had talked with her first, I might have made a better philanthropic decision.  Here’s the thing… I can get better at philanthropy if I take time to observe the results, reflect, learn, and make changes.

What does all this have to do with grapes? Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but mutuality and learning are the hallmarks of sustainable philanthropy.  Just as the vineyard is a delicately balanced environment where the vine and the winemaker work together to create the gift of the harvest, so the giver and the receiver must work together to create an empowered and sustainable philanthropic event.  This keeps the personal gift from becoming confusing.  As to learning… as the vine grows, the winemaker supports and trains the vine, all the while learning how to better care for the vine, which produces a more fruitful harvest.  Excellence in philanthropy comes through ongoing learning between the givers and receivers. 

As leaders, we are not only financially philanthropic.  A good leader is generous in many ways.  We express our generosity of spirit in personal ways, always taking care to listen and learn in an environment of mutual growth.  This will bring a great harvest of joy to our workplace. 

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  ~Churchill

May our leadership this week include a vision for generosity...the kind that includes mutual respect and moves towards empowerment.     


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