Who is a philanthropist? A creative multimedia exhibit touring the country opens up that question for us in compelling ways, drawing on ideas and practices developed here at the Center for Civic Reflection.
The exhibit, The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited, highlights in word and image longstanding African-American cultural traditions of giving, traditions often overlooked in the popular media and histories of American philanthropy. The exhibit was inspired by an award-winning book, Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African-American Philanthropists, written by Valaida Fullwood with photographer Charles Thomas. In 2014 Fullwood received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to create an exhibit on African-American philanthropy. Since its inaugural exhibition in Charlotte, NC, in 2015, The Soul of Philanthropy exhibit has traveled to historically black colleges and cultural institutions across the South and beyond.
Most recently, The Soul of Philanthropy made its South Carolina debut, opening in Columbia on February 10. The exhibit is the fruit of a partnership by Columbia’s Richland Library, Central Carolina Community Foundation, and an African American women’s giving circle, Women Engaged. Richland Library, one of ten libraries nationwide to receive the 2017 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, is serving as host.
According to Heather Sherwin, Vice President for Advancement at Central Carolina Community Foundation (CCCF), about 250 people attended the opening celebration. Eight exemplary philanthropists from Columbia and the Midlands area, collectively called Promise Keepers, were selected to represent local stories. Among them are a retired optometrist and former NAACP president, a retired police officer who started a program to get youth off the streets, and the executive director of the nonprofit community organization Every Black Girl. The opening ceremony included a symbolic “passing of the torch” by a philanthropist from the exhibition’s previous home in Atlanta, using a farmer’s lantern resembling one that Harriet Tubman used on the Underground Railroad. This was followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Columbia’s mayor, a libation from a local minister, and a reading by a Charlotte, North Carolina poet whose work was featured in Fullwood's book. The exhibition is free and open to the public during regular Richland Library hours through May 6.
An influential essay co-authored by Center for Civic Reflection founding director Elizabeth Lynn and Susan D. Wisely provided a conceptual frame for The Soul of Philanthropy. Shortly before the Columbia opening, Lynn presented Four Traditions of Philanthropy to about 60 local donors, nonprofit leaders and community activists at the South Carolina State Museum. In addition, Lynn led a civic reflection learning session that prepared local facilitators to lead conversations tied to the exhibit. Participants—ranging from twentysomethings to retirees and including individual givers, members of faith communities, nonprofit staff and leaders—discussed the joys, choices, and responsibilities of giving.
During her visit to Columbia, Lynn also met with Central Carolina Community Foundation (CCCF) staff to talk about the implications for their work of the “Four Traditions” outlined in the essay—philanthropy as relief, as improvement, as social reform, and as civic engagement. Lynn says of the discussion with CCCF staff, “People were primed to talk, really receptive. It was the most positive experience I’ve had of people really thinking of their own work in light of these traditions.” According to CCCF’s Heather Sherwin, participants identified relief, the first of the four traditions, as the most prevalent tradition practiced in their community. The framework of the four traditions, says Sherwin, has “helped broaden people’s perspectives—helped them understand that as important as relief is, dollars can make an impact beyond providing food, clothing and shelter.”
Summarizing her experience in South Carolina, Lynn says, “It was a wonderful two days. Everybody I met was thinking about philanthropy in a broad and deep way, with a passion to improve their common life.”
Who is a philanthropist? The Soul of Philanthropy gives an enlarging and enlivening answer: “Everyone can be one!”
- Come to see philanthropy differently! Watch video clips of Columbia, SC philanthropists talking about how and why they give back to their communities.