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Guest opinion: True philanthropy embodied by Utah women

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100 Women Who Care SLC

When you think of the word “philanthropist,” whom do you picture? A millionaire with a monocle? Tuxedo-clad attendees at a fundraising gala? An heiress with two middle names? Think again. 

Etymology tells us that at its most basic level, philanthropy means a love of humanity. It’s caring about the welfare of others and being willing to share your resources, whether that is time, energy or money. While similar to charity in most respects, philanthropy tends to be more strategic and focused on getting at the root causes of social needs. Yet somewhere along the line we have come to associate it with being rich, white and male. 

But the truth is, we are surrounded by philanthropists. You may even be one and not know it. Recently the Utah Women & Leadership Project sponsored an event at UVU called “Utah Women, Giving, and Identity: The Complexity of Philanthropy in Utah” that aimed to dispel some of the myths and inspire women to channel their charitable impulses in effective ways. We know that generous women make a huge difference in communities throughout the nation and throughout the world by using their resources to create new humanitarian initiatives, build cultural institutions, advance programs and promote policies. But what about Utah? Are there unique challenges here?

In others parts of the country “I gave at the office” is the ubiquitous response, but here in Utah it may be “I gave at church.” Because so many here belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which asks members to donate 10% of their increase, people may feel they can check off the charity box. Another reason cited for not giving are competing good priorities: worthy causes abound, and it can be hard to know where to contribute. On the flip side, some women may be so entrenched in their community that they are unaware of the pressing needs in less economically stable neighborhoods. 

Research shows that women tend to give most consistently when they feel their contributions really matter. One way to maximize the impact of giving is by pooling funds. An organization called 100 Women Who Care (with chapters in Salt Lake and Utah County) operates on the premise that each member will contribute $100 four times each year, the group will pool the money, and vote on where to donate the sum. The relatively affordable contribution democratizes philanthropy while the combined donating power can make a bigger impact. The Lilly School of Philanthropy found that giving circles across the nation grew threefold between 2007 and 2017, with members donating almost $1.3 billion to community needs. 

Philanthropy is a core of American identity, with over $300 billion donated annually. But 75% of that is donated by individuals. Not foundations, bequests, corporations, but regular people like you and me. The simple truth is we can all be philanthropist — and that includes women and men of any demographic here in our wonderful state.

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.