There is an old parable I have come across at various points throughout my career. I’ve adapted it for my work with nonprofits to illustrate the ability of vision and purpose to inspire generosity. It goes like this:
There was once a traveler in ancient times who happens upon a work site with countless men, bloody and sweaty, laboriously cutting stone. Curious about their work, he asks the first man he encounters what he is doing.
The man doesn’t look up. He responds flatly, “I am cutting stone.” Unsatisfied with his answer, the traveler approaches a second man and repeats the question. This man pauses long enough to say, “I am cutting stone for a wall of some sort. This work feeds my family. That’s all I care about.”
Determined for information, the traveler asks a third man.
This man, as sweaty and bloody as the other two, stops what he is doing, puts down his ax, and smiles with pride. “I am cutting stone for a wall, which will be part of the most magnificent Cathedral that has ever been built. I know I won’t see it built, and my children won’t see it built, and even my children’s children won’t see it built, but I will die knowing that I was part of something that will be here for generations after I am gone.”
I’ve never given a name to the cathedral in this story, but I’ve always visualized it as Notre Dame. Which is why I have found this story reverberating in my mind and in my heart as a fire ravaged parts of this ancient treasure that, true to the wishes of the third stonecutter, has indeed been here for generations.
I am reminded of the truly ephemeral nature of all earthly things, which I personally believe is equally unsettling and comforting. Particularly in our modern, throw-away age of technology, virtual reality, and simulated social experiences, I find it humbling that we are brought to our knees at the loss of something so physical and tangible.
Notre Dame Cathedral is awe-inspiring – no matter your faith, creed, or beliefs – not only for the extraordinary feats of architecture and engineering, but for how it has withstood the test of time, surviving the wraths of both nature and man for more than eight centuries, an enduring symbol of the transcendence of humanity.
Notre Dame has once again transcended, connecting people around the world through shared sorrow, love, and veneration, which is being displayed in myriad ways. I was touched at the unity between strangers in the streets as they joined together in song, watching as flames consumed this historical treasure. Within 24 hours, hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to the rebuilding of Notre Dame; now it is more than $1 billion.
An unpredictable ripple effect then reached three Baptist churches in Louisiana, recently destroyed by arson in reprehensible acts of hate: a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $1.2 million in less than two days. In a somewhat more predictable ripple effect, there has also been brash backlash to the outpouring of support. Critics questioned the motives and intentions of donors, depicting them as everything from tax-evading opportunists to proliferators of wealthy elitism.
Backlash like this can leave many wondering if no good deed can go unpunished, but such criticism is actually vital to the very nature of philanthropy. Because while it can threaten the inclination of the wealthy to support any cause, it can also start important discourse among diverse groups of people – the kind of discourse that may create an essential sea change in attitudes and actions around ubiquitous social issues. It reminds us that, for better or worse, philanthropy can amplify any voice.
An ethos within our Firm is that humanity depends on philanthropy. Most obviously, this tenet refers to the impact philanthropy has on its beneficiaries; it’s easy to understand how disadvantaged people depend on the goodwill and generosity of others, whether financial or otherwise. But, perhaps less obviously, there is another, latent implication within the words humanity depends on philanthropy: that we all depend on philanthropy as well. Whether we define ourselves as benefactors, supporters, or critics, we are all inherently and irrefutably human.
As such, we depend on philanthropy as a way to express unity and solidarity, dissonance and objection. We depend on it to make our voices heard and our presence known. We depend on it to build a sense of community, defined not by physical boundaries or geography, but by a sense of belonging to a shared ideal.
At its purest, we lean on philanthropy to reconnect with our own humanity in a moment when we may find ourselves feeling detached from it. Through it, we manifest the purely human qualities of generosity and compassion.
Philanthropy cannot exist without generosity or compassion, but it also cannot exist without need. This is the dual nature of philanthropy, a symbiotic relationship that is forged between benefactor and beneficiary through reciprocal acts of humanity.
Notre Dame graciously allowed us to make her the beneficiary of our collective generosity and compassion. In our own effervescent humanity, that is something we will always need.