I had the honor of giving The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University 2016 commencement speech. Below is the speech in its entirety.
It was my senior year in college, and I had no clue what I wanted to do. I had no job waiting for me.
I was not like my friends, as each of them had a job lined up. One was going to work as a systems analyst for Anheuser Busch; one friend was going into a leadership program with SBC Global (now AT&T); and another was going into a manager training program at Enterprise – all prominent St. Louis companies that, growing up in the area, were the most admired and on the list of dream jobs of so many graduating that year.
But I had no idea what I wanted to do. And this gave my parents some reservations.
Like any good mom and dad, my parents wanted to know “the plan.” I was told that you enter into college, know what you want to do, prepare yourself through a degree, and then get the job of your dreams. This is what everyone dreams of and expects.
But it wasn’t going to happen like that for me, and I could tell my parents were a little stressed because this “path” wasn’t going to shape up the way they thought.
That year, I came home for Thanksgiving break to be with my family. The night before Thanksgiving, my dad asked me to head out to the porch for a talk. I knew in my heart this was going to be painful. This is not what I wanted to do on Thanksgiving; I was already stressed enough.
I sat down, and he said, “So what are you going to do? Your mother tells me you are a criminal justice major with a minor in zoology, so do you want to be a zoo cop?” This was followed quickly with, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
After several small jobs, including a stint at the Honey Baked Ham store – yes, you are looking at the number one cashier in the Midwest for the 2000 holiday season – I finally discovered something about myself.
I discovered my true passion wasn’t about me. It was about others. My passion comes from helping others – the meaning of philanthropy.
This is when I started to realize I wasn’t like my friends. They were happy when they started to advance in the company and when people shook their heads in admiration when they told them where they worked. I never got that feeling of satisfaction.
Working in the field of philanthropy means that you will fight for someone else’s needs and rights before you are satisfied. That is the truly remarkable and purposeful life you will lead.
At times, though, others will not understand what or why you do this important work. My parents still struggle telling their friends what I do. It has now become a fun game for me to hear them articulate what I do. It usually ends with, “You know what, I think he makes money by telling people things that involves giving.”
Last month I found myself off the coast of Auckland on Waiheke Island talking with a group of travelers who happened to be sitting next to me at a restaurant. As I sat there, one of the individuals next to me said, “So are you from the states?” I said, “Yep. You?” “Dublin.”
And then it happened. Like so many times before, the typical question that maybe even the parents in the room have asked you, their sons and daughters – “What do you do?”
My first thought was to say my typical response: I am in philanthropy. I am a researcher. I am an author. I am a speaker. But really, these are just labels and don’t truly reflect the work I do.
The titles you get will never explain the transformative power you will have on other people. Titles won’t explain the challenges, failures, successes, and beliefs you have for the sake of another – and someone you may never ever meet.
In your job:
- You will connect passionate and purposeful people (donors) to people in need (beneficiaries).
- You will fight for the rights of others in the hope they get the life they deserve.
- You will give hope to families suffering from diseases that are incurable.
- You will become emotional when you see the people you help perform the impossible.
- You will become discouraged when someone says to you – “I can’t,” “not interested,” “it’s not feasible,” and “I get it – but it’s a no.”
- And you will want to quit – quit believing in the reason you put others before yourself.
I know because I have been there. But that’s when you stop and say to yourself: “Here’s my chance.”
I was sitting down with reporters in New York to debrief them on the power of philanthropy and millennials. Near the end of the discussion, a reporter said to me, “I hate to be that guy, but you’re pretty good at talking about what’s possible – yet we live in an old-school philanthropy world. I mean, it’s dominated by old money, primarily from old white guys.”
I quickly countered with the power virtual reality is having on individuals whether they are 80 or 8, or can give $50,000 or $5. In philanthropy today, potential donors are experiencing firsthand the challenges of the beneficiary.
I talked with him about the incredible work by millennials in Detroit who are fed up with the current economic situation and are building sustainable business models to reinvent neighborhoods. The reporter quickly realized he was wrong.
So, here’s your chance – through your work, you can prove them all wrong.
The idea of doing something good is a popular notion. Research tells us the attitude towards giving, serving and using one’s talents to help others is a noble and desired idea. This idea goes back to the roots of the nonprofit and social sector and is embedded in the ethos of every individual because of the empathy we have to help one another.
Couple that preference to do good with new technology tools to feed on that impulse to act for others, and it seems like a perfect storm of taking our interests to action for causes. Yet we don’t see the hype and desire matching the action necessary for social change.
That’s why we need you.
The field of philanthropy needs you to help move all this interest in “doing good” into meaningful action for social change. The playing field has been established, and the general public is on the sidelines. They are waiting for you, graduates of 2016, to take their interest and do something remarkable for others.
So here’s your chance. Prove them wrong. Move people from interest to meaningful action for good. And don’t quit believing in the power of helping others.
Congratulations graduates – I look forward to telling others about the time I got to be in the same room with you.