The Art of Giving Back

The New Canaan Country School Alumni Council and Office of Community Development sponsored a panel discussion on “The Art of Giving Back” moderated by New York Times “Wealth Matters” columnist Paul Sullivan Nov. 5.

As its mission states, New Canaan Country School “inspires students to be lifelong learners with the courage and confidence to make a positive contribution to the world.”

The panelists, three of whom are Country School alumni, spoke about their own experiences giving “time, talent and treasure” in a variety of ways. They all agreed that donors today want to invest in solving root causes rather than short-term fixes, and that today’s philanthropists want to roll up their sleeves alongside the organizations in order to better understand and help solve their strategic challenges.

 “It’s not about just charity and writing a check and checking off a to-do list. It’s about supporting an organization that shares your values,” said Holly Donaldson, Class of 2004, a youth and community leader at AmeriCares. “AmeriCares is thinking about how we can prepare and respond, but then also recover and prepare for the next disasters. Organizations are really becoming much more sophisticated. It’s not just about charity and putting a band-aid on the problem. It’s about looking at the problem holistically.”

Jeff Erdmann, a member of the Country School Class of 1978, who is currently Managing Director at Merrill Lynch, differentiated charity from philanthropy in this way: “It’s about creating a positive business model that is sustainable. … How do we take a dollar and turn it into three dollars from a philanthropic standpoint.”

The panelists each described what “giving” means to them both personally and professionally.

“What giving means to me is to try to be a responsible citizen,” said Willy Oppenheim, Class of 2001, Rhodes Scholar and founder of the nonprofit organization, Omprakash, which matches volunteers with organizations which need support. “That’s something I try to let inform the decisions I make as an educator and as a consumer; what I eat, what I wear, where I go; and by the way I engage with politics and ideas. It’s not just one section of my life, it’s how I try to be in this world.”

“I see the fundamental value of volunteering as education,” said Oppenheim, who is finishing his doctorate in education at Oxford University. “Failing to address the root causes of a given issue can risk perpetuating the status quo. … The most powerful drivers of change are getting people to think and understand the deeper issues.”

Former New Canaan Country School parent Linda Marshall, founder of MissionBridge Philanthropy and former President of the Board of Stepping Stones Museum, also spoke about the critical role of volunteerism.

“I think the best volunteer is the one who truly believes in the mission of the organization they are supporting,” said Marshall. “The best volunteer experience comes when the volunteer and the organization really have a shared set of expectations.”

Marshall also shared trends in the industry, such as the emergence of socially responsible investing and divesting. “It is really thinking about how you can use your assets to create any kind of social impact,” she said.

Joe Toce, Managing Director of Andersen Tax, added his perspective on leveraging the benefits of investment choices.

 “You can give more if you can be more efficient in your giving and take better consequences of your tax advantages,” he said. He also spoke about the benefits and pitfalls of donor-advised funds.

For the full panel discussion, view the video.



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