How do you define philanthropy?

Traditionally, people think of philanthropy as giving money to community organizations. The assumption is that you must be wealthy or have money to spare to be a philanthropist.

That’s why I was excited when I learned about The Soul of Philanthropy, a new exhibit by Valaida Fullwood coming to Cleveland, OH this fall. The goal of the exhibit is to help us broaden our definition of philanthropy. Money is important, but philanthropy isn’t just for the rich. In our community, we also have a long history of supporting our organizations and each other through bake sales, rent parties, and giving through church. This is philanthropy.

What’s your philanthropic strategy and what advice would you give to other philanthropists?

I’ve served on a lot of nonprofit boards, for both arts and social service community-based organizations. Many years ago, I was involved in one community-based organization that merged with another nonprofit. Through this experience, I learned the importance of evaluating the sustainability and impact of the charitable organizations we support. It’s imperative that we ensure they have the infrastructure in place to sustain their operations.

I also think that “advocacy” organizations are important, but I don’t want my dollars to solely fund “getting out the word.” Building awareness about an issue is not enough. My advice to others is to do research and ask, “how can we make sure that we are investing in organizations that are having measurable impact, and how can we help nonprofits build operational capacity so that they can scale?”

The students at my son’s school held weekly donut day fundraisers and the kids would choose the charities each week. He loved participating in these events, but when I asked him where the money was going and what impact it was making, it was hard for him to answer. It turned out that some of the charities the students were supporting were newly established as a means to provide employment or support pet projects versus established organizations with a clear charitable purpose.  My son decided to learn more and wrote a report about the “pinkification” of breast cancer organizations. Through his research, he discovered that some organizations were selling pink branded goods and argued they were “building awareness” of breast cancer but that was the extent of their impact. Again, building awareness is important but it’s not enough.

I had an informative experience at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank where I served on the board of directors for 10 years. We developed deep relationships with local and national funders. Through my service, I learned about nonprofit stewardship and good grantmaking, which includes understanding how decisions are made, achieving a community benefit, and quantifying impact.

Tell me about a “bright spot.” Who makes you hopeful?

I believe that people are generous. Sure, some people are selfish. But I believe that most people have some sense of obligation to give back. And people give in different ways – through church, to the Parent Teacher Association, to the local food pantry, via dress-down days at work. Lots of people are philanthropic.

The challenge is that the needs are so great. That’s why, we need philanthropy to grow and we need to be thoughtful about how and where we give and be as efficient and effective as possible in our giving.

Do you think Black women do philanthropy differently?

This may be a generalization, but sometimes we try to recreate the wheel. I think there can be too much focus on creating or leading new nonprofits, with our signature programs, etc. This comes from a good place, but it increases competition for funding and may dilute our impact.

We should scan the environment, determine who else is impacting the constituents we want to help, and partner with them to leverage our impact rather than feeling a need to start from scratch. If we partner, we can benefit from the work done by the organizations who already know the landscape - policy issues, opportunities, and metrics. Additionally, we reduce the administrative costs necessary to deliver community benefits.

Who are your other philanthropic sheroes?

There are so many! But Oprah is a total game-changer. She gives with her heart and head. She does the research and tries to tackle big problems through big impact. For example, since founding the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, she’s continued to follow the girls. That type of giving can change whole communities.

Additionally, I love how the Obamas are thinking about the presidential library. They’re building an expansive community resource, not just a library.

I admire Robert Smith’s recent gift to pay the loans for the recent Morehouse graduates. He’s also taking a community approach to giving and encouraging those young men to pay it forward. I think this type of philanthropy can have a great impact.

Finally, I admire the Cleveland Foundation. The work they do is amazing! And recently, they announced that they are moving their offices to the urban core to help build on their investment in MidTown and to continue their vision to enhance neighborhoods throughout the core city of Cleveland. They want to create a space that is open to the community and invites neighbors in.

Is there anything else you want to tell us about your philanthropy?

It’s important to our community at 50 Black Women Over 50 that we amplify the work of the organizations we support. By talking about the nonprofits that our honorees support, we hope to inspire other Black women to give even more of their time, treasure and talent.

Read the Black Woman's Guide to Philanthropy at BlackHer.