There are a precious few times in our lives when events much larger than ourselves put a number of things in perspective that we don’t see under normal circumstances, if in fact there ever is such a thing. The critical measure of these moments is what we learn from them not just for our own little lives, but for the collective lives we live in communities, states, nations and the world.
As this is being written, the waters continue to rise in New Orleans, thousands of people’s homes are gone across four states in addition to those that can be salvaged after feeling nature’s wrath, and many lives have been irreparably damaged and even destroyed by various actions of a force of nature with the disarmingly lovely name of Katrina.
What does all this have to do with philanthropy, the justification for this column? Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami in Asia somehow bring out the best in us. We get the suffering, the sudden unplanned upheaval in lives that comes without warning and strikes down all: young and old, rich and poor, the just and the unjust and all the variations that make up the human condition in all its mystery and wonder.
We feel bad when we watch such broad and — we believe — undeserved destruction, for we can understand from afar what it might be like to have your whole life turned upside down in an instant. “There,” we say, “but for the grace of God go I,” and we mean it. We can put ourselves in their shoes, for the immediate news coverage of these disasters puts us right there. The real suffering of these victims seems palpable to us, a rare benefit of spending much of our time living through others on reality shows and other offerings on our TV sets.
Again, the question arises: “What does this have to do with philanthropy?” Quite a bit, actually. Already, only a few hours after Hurricane Katrina blew in from the Gulf Coast, the expected relief from government at the city, state and national level is on its way. What distinguishes United States citizens from those of other countries is the widespread voluntary contribution of time and money that comes pouring out in the wake of such wide scale human and environmental devastation. Lives and landscapes are lost or forever changed in these truly catastrophic events, and we respond without asking questions or even thinking twice about it. We know to step up when the need is greatest. This is philanthropy of the highest sort, for it asks nothing in advance or in return. We see need in its purest sense, and we stretch ourselves in ways that should make us proud to be of help without even being asked.
These lives, forever changed, deserve no less, for they provide an opportunity for us to be of service to others. The great American education leader Johnnetta B. Cole’s grandmother put it well when she said, “Doing for others is the rent you’ve got to pay for living on this planet.” Philanthropy, giving to others without expectations of anything particular in return, fuels a lot of what is important in our own lives and in our lives together here in Whatcom County.
We are spared the regular onslaughts of hurricanes and tornadoes that plague other parts of the United States, yet we understand the obvious needs created by these natural disasters happening elsewhere. What we may not readily understand is that private philanthropy is the critical difference even though it may well not be the majority of the dollars spent when all the recovery is completed.
What struck me in addition to just the sheer magnitude of the devastation caused by Katrina were the marginal lives that so many of the victims were already living before this catastrophe instantly wiped out what little they had. Living from paycheck to paycheck without the variety of resources many of us have the good fortune to have at our disposal, many of these victims have essentially been knocked back to square one at a time in which economic disparity between rich and poor continues to grow.
I hope many of us in Whatcom County will do everything we possibly can to help relieve the human suffering and repair the environmental degradation wrought by Katrina. My continuing hope is that here at home we increasingly practice philanthropy that helps prevent rather than respond to crises in people’s lives, that creates a promising future for young lives, that saves the environment rather than repairing it and that expands the powerful addition to our spirits the arts provide.
Philanthropy is not only personally rewarding to those who give, it is often the difference in making important things happen in communities, families and individual lives that would not otherwise happen. Hurricane Katrina and the related flooding that have created widespread havoc along the Gulf Coast are metaphors for the continuing and potential disasters in people’s lives and in the natural environment here in Whatcom County. The scale and the depth of the tragedy are not at the level we have recently witnessed on our television sets, and that makes it easier for us to ignore them in this most benighted of places in which we live and do our business. Yet, there is much to be done that depends upon the generosity that voluntarily commits our resources both to the common wealth we all share here in Whatcom County and more indirectly to those far away for whom we are the difference.
Don Drake has spent 20 years working in executive roles in philanthropy. He stepped down this month as President of Whatcom Community Foundation after serving since 1997.