This week I went to the movies to see Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr., as a famed comic book character? What brilliant casting. As the executive director of an organization that cares deeply about philanthropy, I live and dream about philanthropy (I know – kinda’ sad). While enjoying the film I could not help but notice its two main messages about giving, which also reminded me of why the work that we do matters.
Spoiled Little Rich Kid (SLRK)
Tony Stark, wealthy playboy and arms dealer is a philanthropist. He hosts the annual Stark charity event, which was fabulously portrayed by the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. But what is the philanthropy about? Who is the beneficiary? Well, Stark himself – he’s the star, and the real beneficiary of his charity event is his own social status. Here the message is of philanthropy as a self-serving pursuit. Not the most flattering picture of philanthropy but certainly one that springs to mind to many people outside the sector who view it as a pastime of the elite : “Oh, you’re talking about charity ladies.”
The Hero’s Journey
Fast forward to message number two, which like most Hollywood stories is about redemption: Tony Stark, the true philanthropist or lover of mankind emerges after a traumatic event in which is heart is “rewired.” He now cares about saving people from the very weapons he manufactures. In service to his new cause, he donates time, talent and treasure and embarks on a perilous hero’s journey. His actions speak to passionate and humanitarian giving of the highest sort but would most people consider his actions philanthropy? Probably not. His extraordinary actions do not fit commonly held beliefs about the nature of philanthropy but his is the perfect “trifecta” of giving time, talent and treasure.
So let’s try to imagine that people understand philanthropy as a complicated and multifaceted part of an even more complicated and multifaceted notion: civic participation. As an organization focused on bringing out the best in philanthropy our strategies are increasingly informed and enriched by a deeper understanding of how philanthropy fits within a larger web of civic action. True givers are engaged civil players. All who give have the choice to model one of the many philanthropic stereotypes (as captured by the SLRK example above) or to embark on a hero’s journey that maximizes community benefit.
Though Stark clearly represents the elite, the essential nature of the hero’s journey he embarks on is anything but that. Unlike the SLRK version of philanthropy, the hero’s journey is more accessible because it is in the simplest terms about finding the best use of your time, talent and treasure to serve mankind.
Are you ready for your hero’s journey?