With more than 20 years spent working in philanthropy and 10 years since I formed my company, Lisa M. Dietlin & Associates, I have been asked to discuss the question many times in this space:  “Why is philanthropy important?”  This question is almost immediately followed by, “….so, how do I get or become involved?”

Lately, it seems I have been asked if someone is born to be philanthropic or if it is learned.  My immediate answer is both.  When thinking about my own life, I often say I was born being philanthropic and believe this is true. I have dedicated my life to doing everything I can to make a difference, but even more than that, I believe that this country was born for philanthropy.  When the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) declared independence on July 4, 1776, they essentially formed a country dependent on philanthropy.  Without a monarchy or state religion to provide schools, hospitals, orphanages, work houses, libraries, houses of worship, and other kinds of services, it took individual people and their commitment to more than themselves to have a supportive society.  Philanthropy was and is critical to be able to offer both the basic things that everyone needs (food, clothing, shelter, and care) and also those things which make us a meaningful culture, which includes the arts, services providing safety, organization, and a social fabric.

Philanthropy seems to be thought of by many as simply the richest among us donating large checks to worthy causes, but philanthropy is much more than something only the wealthy can do.  It occurs both on a large and small scale and exists in all cultures.  Webster’s Dictionary defines philanthropy as “an altruistic concern for human welfare.”

Starting with this level of understanding, why is philanthropy important? Well, to put it absolutely bluntly, we could not survive without it. Both critical money donations and essential donations of time are the only reasons that we have strong universities, great parks, vital health clinics, crucial research, and well, you get the idea.  Without philanthropy, there would not be a single theater, dance company, great museum, green movements, underwater exploration, animal shelters, programs to end hunger and homelessness, school orchestras, and likely everything else that is more than the most basic services.  So many parts of our society depend on philanthropy!

Then, this leads to the second question I am asked, “How do I get or become involved?”  Getting involved can be very easy.  I suggest you first think about what you are involved with already.  Where are you spending your time, and what are you doing?  Now, what else do you care deeply about? What excites you when you think about becoming engaged with it? Alternatively, what gets you angry when you hear or read about it?  What recent story has haunted you after you discovered about it online? What inspired you after you saw a picture in your local newspaper? Who excited you as you watched a story on the television? What frustrated you as you listened to the radio, or what surprised you as your neighbor told you about a situation?  If any of these elicited a response from you, such as thinking, “somebody needs to do something,” then perhaps you are that person! Consider that the next time something like this happens, you instead say, “I’d really like to be involved with that!”

Every single one of the situations described above can be a place for you to start or at least begin thinking about how you can get involved to change or improve things.

Think today about how you can begin Making A Difference in your community.  You could take up a collection of money, food, or clothing for those in need.  You could enlist others to help you in your efforts.  You could visit a neighbor, or pay a visit to a senior residence or hospital; alternatively, you could visit a daycare center or animal shelter.  Think about where you would be happy to share your time.  In other words, what would put a smile on your face?

For doing more and considering where you might contribute, there is no shortage of need in this challenging economy.  Did you know that there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the US? Most (if not all) of them would welcome your help.

Here are five (5) recommendations and tips to start you on your path to Making A Difference®:
1. Reach out to an organization you think is essential to what makes your community great – and find out what they need.
2. E-mail the writer of an article on a subject that touches or outrages you, and find out where people are doing the most good; they have done the research and often have amazing ideas!
3. Add a tagline to the signature line of your outgoing e-mails (and those that are forwarded and replied) about a cause you care about and that you want more people to know about; you could even provide a direct link to the website of that cause or nonprofit.
4. Volunteer your time to a neighbor or a center for children or seniors or animals and ask your friends to do the same; commit to doing something every month and consider virtual volunteering, if you do not have time to go to a specific location; some nonprofits offer the opportunity to volunteer from the comfort of your home or ease of your office.
5. Really think about a cause that inspires you and then search on the Internet for the organization that is making the biggest difference while using donations wisely; that is the place to give your support!

Bonus Tip:  When you shop for groceries, school supplies, paper towels, toilet paper, copy paper, coffee, coffee filters,  or almost anything, buy a few extras and donate them to a local charity.

Bonus Tip 2:  If you are thinking about donating your dollars to a cause and are confused about which do the best job for a cause you care about, visit; they rate thousands of charities, so you can be sure your dollars are being used in the best possible way.  For a more in-depth report on national nonprofits, check out the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (

It is really quite simple to get started.  You just have to take that first step, so make a plan. Make a commitment to do something today or this month to help others. You will be amazed at how good you feel knowing you are Making A Difference!

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