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COMMENTARY: Philanthropy and our common good

In October 2019, I was heading off to a writing retreat in England. Before leaving, I met with two kind-hearted friends, asking if they would help me plan an event in celebration of National Philanthropy Day, November 15.

In October 2019, I was heading off to a writing retreat in England. Before leaving, I met with two kind-hearted friends, asking if they would help me plan an event in celebration of National Philanthropy Day on Nov. 15. 

They agreed to help and two years ago, 40 women from the region got together in Banff, agreeing that philanthropy is important – but not a word that is well understood.

At that inaugural event, one of our honest and enthusiastic participants explained with passionate hand gestures, "You know, philanthropy is a really good word with Greek roots." She explained that philos means friend, and anthropos means human. By combining the two words, philanthropy means friendly acts that show love, compassion, sharing and serve humanity.

"I don't know," she said, "but somehow it seems to have gone off its rails."

It was agreed that philanthropy is not easily understood, but that it is fundamentally an obligation to our greater collective, the greater common good. I call it the GCG.

I use the definition, “Practical acts of kindness that benefit of others.” Neither definition of philanthropy mentions money nor obligation. Philanthropy is not easily understood as a contractual agreement – but there is an implied obligation for the greater good. 

If you were to research the words: Canada's National Philanthropy Day, you would find that in 2012, an act of Parliament was introduced on the floor of the Senate.

The Act was passed and some of its key points are: Philanthropy is a spirit of giving without expectation of reward, the work of dedicated volunteers inspires Canadians and improves the lives of others, philanthropy builds strong communities, philanthropically minded people are key to building civil society, working in service to a common goal and countless Canadians have benefited from and continue to benefit from a healthy philanthropic sector, a symbol of a strong civil society.

As for the women's gathering, we agreed that our conversations needed more time, more food and more wine and further consideration. After two successful events, the universe screeched, alarm bells clanged, and the bottom fell out of our patterns of social gathering because of COVID-19.

Recently, a friend and I were reminiscing: “Remember? We thought COVID-19, was a short-term pandemic-thingy that would pass and we would soon be back to socializing, with a new and improved understanding of public health and the common good.” 

Well, some of us thought that. Then my friend and I wondered, "Do we understand the term: common good?" 

A quick internet search and I found Standford University's Encyclopedia of Philosophy that the common good refers to those facilities – whether material, cultural or institutional – that the members of a community provide to all members, in order to fulfil a relational obligation … Some canonical examples of the common good include: the road system; public parks, police protection and public safety, courts and the judicial system, public schools, museums and cultural institutions, public transportation and many more. The term itself may refer either to the interests that members have in common or to the facilities that serve common interests. 

Coming on the heels of Remembrance Day, Nov. 15 is National Philanthropy Day and after we remember and reflect on service and sacrifice, we need to think about practical ways we can be kind to others. The philanthropic sector builds bridges, bonds, and relationships for our greater good. Paying attention to the systems and facilities that support us all is what philanthropy does. Whether we understand the spirit, or not, it's a force at work in our community. Think about it.

Lorraine's debut book: An Ecology of Gratitude: Writing your way to what matters will be launched online via Zoom on November 19 at 7 p.m. Register online at www.banfflflibrary.ab.ca. Visit: www.grassrootsgratitude.ca or follow Lorraine on Instagram: lorraine_widmer_carson.