What does a philanthropist look like?

Howdy Oxbridge students!

Over the next two weeks you will clarify your team mission and vision. You will also start researching organizations that align with your team’s guiding interest. Now is the point in the course when you really start acting the part of philanthropist. How does this label sit with you?

Some of you may be thinking, “yeah, yeah philanthropy is about ‘tending to mankind’ and all that jazz but really all the philanthropists I’ve heard of are people who are superbly rich. Not only that, but they are all white men. I don’t fit that type, so where does that leave me?”

I hear you. Take a look at some of our country’s best know philanthropists.

John D RockefellerWarren-BuffettBill-gates2John D. Rockefeller. Warren Buffett. Bill Gates. All titans of business who amassed the greatest fortunes in our country’s history…not exactly a United Colors of Benetton ad.


But sometimes all it takes is a little digging to unearth different stories and different kinds of philanthropists.

Take Lyda Hill, a Dallas billionaire who believes science holds the key to a wide range of social problems. Ms. Hill was the only unmarried woman among the top 50 donors last year. She gave away $63.2 million.
Lyda-HillWomen philanthropists are often portrayed as nurturing, listening and focused on “feminine” causes such as children and the arts.

Lyda Hill flies in the face of that:

“There are lots of women who could give, but the husband wants to support his alma mater,” she says. “Well I say, ‘Get a life, lady!’”

Ok, so still we must grapple with the question of money.

Can you truly call yourself a philanthropist if you are not a wealthy person?

What if we thought a philanthropist could look like this:


This is a drawing of Oseola McCarty, a self-described washer woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Toward the end of her life, Ms. McCarty met a banker in town to discuss her legacy. She had no children, only a fifth-grade education, and struggled to plan her estate. The banker places 10 dimes on the table in front of her; each represented 10% of her assets. He also wrote the names of her five named beneficiaries on slips of paper and asked Oseola to divvy up the coins. After slowly setting aside coins for her cousins and church, Ms. McCarty held 6 coins destined for the University of Southern Mississippi. These coins represented what would become a scholarship fund for African American teachers – the profession Ms. McCarty dreamed of during her days taking in laundry.

Oseola McCarty’s bequest of $150,000 to the university represented the largest ever by an African American. It inspired over 600 donors to add $350,000 to the fund. You should read her whole story here – what an amazing woman.

Bill Gates says that the role of philanthropy is as a catalyst, to get important work started. Oseola McCarty was certainly a catalytic philanthropist. More elusive and difficult than simply donating one’s own fortune, is the ability to inspire outlandish generosity in other people. Maybe it’s time we add some new faces to the cast of American philanthropists.


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