By Eve Grace Penoyer
There are a number of reasons a person might choose the path of philanthropy: to enjoy tax benefits, to create personal fame, to satisfy a psychological need for redemption, to attempt to practice honest altruism, to justify an obsession, to repay a social debt, to meet a religious expectation, to create a legacy through which to be remembered.
Over the years, depending on the perspective of those inquiring, I have been assumed to act from one or more of these motivations. Whenever I have tried to explain my simple but sincere desire to create a better world, I have often been either ridiculed as a naïve dreamer or lauded as a paragon of virtue, when I am neither. Instead, I am a realist who has decided, for the most practical of reasons, to apply the lessons of personal experience toward solving our world’s most fundamental or fascinating problems. Be it famine, disease, endless civil and international conflict, climate change, or overpopulation, sub-atomic or interstellar exploration or time travel, I do believe solutions can be found. I do not have the answers to any of those questions, but I feel very confident of where we can find them.
“Phil” (love) + “anthropy” (people) is a choice, and in my view the most logical choice for those with both the vision and the means, a necessary investment in our future if we are to survive and thrive as a species. Darwin opened our eyes to the ways that the strongest, most agile, most advantageously colored, etc., of a species survive to reproduce in the animal world, leading to the evolution of healthier and more stable populations. In nature, all individuals start out with small differences but a more-or-less clean slate. While a nest full of little birds might hatch in a more or less advantageous location, their mother had a lot of freedom to choose the best place she could find at the time she built it; when they fledge, these creatures are likewise free to fly as far as they are able to find somewhere better if need be. Some little birds don’t make it, of course—we often say “nature is cruel”. Human society is not so simple, but it can be just as cruel, even more so when prejudices, income disparity, substance abuse and domestic violence are factored into the mix. In the face of such harsh realities, which affect no one more deeply or permanently than children, we each have a choice—to just shrug our shoulders with indifference to the struggles of some and to simply let them fail or, if we are willing to live our professed “love for humanity” purposefully, to help them to fly further.
Some give food, others clothing, shelter, medicine—and without a doubt these forms of giving enable many to survive. But for humans, mere survival is not nearly enough. We must also satisfy our fundamental emotional needs and our intellectual curiosity to truly feel our lives are worth living. We require a means to develop self-expression, self-awareness and self-worth, and it is only when these needs are fulfilled that we can maturely seek answers to “How?” and “Why?” In order to grow beyond our original circumstances, we must be ready for answers that we would never have otherwise expected.
My own evolution as a philanthropist compelled me to ask myself: How can I best help others, especially those in need, to thrive? To become the best versions of themselves? And thereafter, to evolve even further? What would both permit and inspire the objects of philanthropy to contribute back into society far more than they might receive from me? While pure charity often fulfills immediate survival needs, it is usually expended and used up for that purpose. I believe the more important role of social philanthropy is to inspire and create growth in the long term, not merely at the individual level but in the broader community, national and international sense—in other words, with the right approach, funds dedicated to philanthropic giving need not be “used up” at all but instead yield substantial long-term social dividends.
Mine is not a Gates-level private foundation—far from it. When I set out to express my vision to create a continuously growing form of social good, I first had to answer for myself the fundamental question of what group, what field, what area I should serve with my limited time and limited funds. If you have only one arrow in your quiver, determining the most important target to aim for becomes of vital concern. The answer to this question was, quite honestly, not at all clear to me at first, so I embarked on a journey of self-discovery.
In The Foundation for Creative Achievement’s (FCA) early years, I experimented with supporting medical research, environmental issues, general education, and the arts—all worthy fields to be sure. Yet it eventually became apparent to me that I was making little real progress in any of those fields and it seemed clear to me that the problem was not a matter of funding or time, but the fundamentals of how most questions were being approached. I observed a disappointing lack of imagination in even highly intelligent, well-educated and well-meaning professionals. I concluded that I needed to address a more fundamental social issue to even begin to meet my goal.
There is obviously no way I can solve even one major problems of this world myself, nor can I hope to harness all the intellect on the planet to do so. Big ideas and limited means can lead to a lot of frustration. But as an investment professional, I have always been inspired by Ben Franklin’s centuries-long demonstration of the power of compound interest: given enough time, $100 can grow to become many millions. I soon realized that I really did not view philanthropy as an expenditure but rather saw my role as an investor in society, with the expectation of a return on that investment in the form of social change, even if that change came slowly and incrementally. My background in both psychology and finance, coupled with my lifelong passion for the arts, soon led me to the decision to invest in building young minds, specifically in the opening of young minds to envision new possibilities through the arts.
In reaching that conclusion, I thought a lot about what it means to be “the fittest” of our species, especially in an age where we have technology available to do so much for us—and what the next stage in human evolution could be. For me the answer is, unequivocally, to develop our inherent ability to imagine what can be. For it is only by pushing our minds to attain new ways of envisioning those things presently-impossible, that we can ever hope to make progress in achieving them. Long before we developed cellphones, tablets and talking computers, one of my personal heroes, Gene Roddenberry, first imagined them—would we have them now, I wonder, had he not then imagined such a future? We can all rattle off long lists of so-called geniuses who have changed the world, and most of us feel grateful for their achievements, but does that absolve the rest of us of a duty to at least aspire to think beyond our daily routines?
Personally, I have a lot of physical limitations—I live with a periodically debilitating genetic disorder—and I grew up in seriously disadvantaged economic, social and psychological conditions. By Darwin’s standards, there’s no question I really should not have survived at all, let alone thrived and evolved. But as a child I was greatly inspired—first by literature and later by music, art, film, theatre and dance, and by the unlimited connections I saw among them—not only to imagine, but to believe in, the seemingly impossible, to find the inner strength to overcome personal obstacles, and to achieve far more than I might ever have hoped for otherwise. I did not have access to the lessons or classes in the arts which I craved—I made do with what little was available through public school, and today there is even less available to disadvantaged children. The arts became my hope and my salvation, not because I became a professional singer, dancer, actor or writer, but because they provided the platform to make me the creative, confident and capable woman I am today. Thus, after considerable self-reflection, I decided with certainty and passion to invest in maximizing opportunities to find the same inspiration and growth I have through involvement in the arts to disadvantaged children who exhibit a unique spark of greater potential.
Community partners, such as South Shore Conservatory with regard to music, have been invaluable in helping to identify children in our local communities who are worthy of such a serious investment. I am certain there are many more of them out there, and it is my dearest wish and hope to find and help more of them reach for the stars. Present funding is limited but I am continually working to grow FCA’s platform and endowment. And I certainly believe in the ripple effect.
From FCA’s young scholarship and grant students, I ask only one thing—that someday, when they are able, they ‘pay it forward’ to other youngsters like them. I impress upon them that what they receive is not “charity” but an investment in their futures. FCA today is a small private foundation but in time it is my hope that it will develop into a movement that will spread inspiration through the arts among young people to imagine and to create the world we all deserve. These are remarkably talented children who lacked only opportunity, and I believe they will eventually make a real difference in the world, not necessarily as musicians, actors, artists, writers or dancers, but in any field they decide to pursue. FCA offers them access to arts environments where they can learn to become imaginative people, inspired citizens and creative leaders. Their achievements in the arts will no doubt be significant, but I am far more interested in what the arts can do for them than what they can do for the arts. When I see their young imaginations take flight in unexpected directions and witness their remarkable strides in focus, self-confidence, expressiveness, and community spirit, I know my social philanthropy is on the right track. It is an absolute joy to watch them learn to overcome challenges as they repeatedly rise above expectations, learning the most important lesson the arts can teach: that imagination has no limits and as long as they develop trust in theirs, neither will they.
Until I chose this path of social philanthropy, I was frankly quite cynical about the future of our species. Together with that pessimism came a frustrating feeling of helplessness in the face of the overwhelming problems of our world. I am just one person–what can one person do? Feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure freeze too many of us into a state of inaction. Instead, I encourage you to ask yourselves: “What would I do if I knew I would not fail?” When I asked myself that question, this was my answer. While I cannot personally solve the many problems of the world, I know we will only find those solutions by imagining our way to them. What can I do? I can certainly help to develop and inspire some of the young minds that can someday start to solve those problems. This is how I can make the greatest contribution possible, leveraging my skills, time and means to multiply and maximize their impact. Perhaps to some this will seem nothing more than a social experiment, but for me it is a very long-term and vital investment in our future as a species and a mission to which I have dedicated the rest of my life.
Learn more about South Shore Conservatory named scholarships at https://sscmusic.org/named-scholarships/.
Ms. Penoyer is the Founder and Trustee of The Foundation for Creative Achievement, a 501(c)(3) organization that generously underwrites full-tuition assistance for South Shore Conservatory piano, strings, and voice students based on need, aptitude and commitment. She may be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.