More Than Money
Issue #34

The Art of Giving

Table of Contents

“Giving as Self-Actualization”

A Conversation with Jeannie Norris

Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff

I think that as you give intentionally over time, you embark on a personal journey of self-actualization. This journey requires courage, self-knowledge, and comfort with personal authority. Of course, those are goals that all of us are moving toward as we grow older, but in a society that sends disempowering messages to women, that journey is very different for women than it is for men. When we also consider the tremendous giving capacity of women, both in earned and in inherited wealth, we see a pretty interesting phenomenon.

For decades, women have been comfortable giving the gift of self-caring for others and not thinking about the value of the time that is spent in that. Usually this is volunteer work, and that's a good thing; we all know that if we didn't have the volunteers we have in this country much of our social service would come to a grinding halt. There is, though, another way to take care, to support what you care about, and to improve people's lives, and that is by giving funds. You can use money to make change happen, both in small and in very big ways.

Making big change happen is certainly comfortable for lots of women-we can all point to women who have been bold philanthropists -but it makes other women pause. I am reminded of the words of author Marianne Williamson: It is not our weakness that we fear, it is our greatness.

Our Deepest Fear
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
From A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles , by Marianne Williamson

Certainly not all women have trouble with greatness. It is just that many of us are not sure we can do big things, or we think that maybe our idea is not a good one, or maybe we don't fully understand the vehicles that we can use to turn our dream into a reality. Learning to believe that what we think is important-moving into that place where we are not apologetic for who we are and what we believe-goes hand in hand with how we use our resources.

If you look at endowment statistics, schools that were all boys or all men and then went co-ed are light years ahead of most girls' and women's institutions in the size of their endowments. Some of that is related to the age of the institutions and to the fact that women, historically, have had less access to financial resources than men, but I think it is also related to gender-based ideas of worth and value. What do women think about the right of their schools to exist? If it's a school for girls or a college for women, do the alumnae believe that the world needs and benefits from the work the institution does? Are the alumnae saying, "This is really important, and I want to see this preserved"?

There a lingering question in women about whether something that is about "me"-that is about women and girls-is really of value. There is a voice that asks, "Is what I support worthy of continuing forever?" I don't think these doubts are conscious. They are biases we grow up with. What has to do with men and boys is really important, but if it's about girls and women we're not so sure. It's not conscious until we make it conscious.

To make a difference philanthropically, we need to be comfortable with personal authority-with our right to be and to think and to express our ideas. That's what we're trying to develop here at Miss Hall's School with our girls.

We are working with Dr. Elizabeth Debold, a well-known psychologist in adolescent girls' development. She is helping us find out what girls can tell us about their experience with accepting their personal authority, the conflict they feel when they are in a relationship, and the tension they feel about staying in a relationship through conflict. How do you say what you need to say and still maintain the personal relationships that are so important to you? Every woman I know knows about these challenges; I have not yet spoken to a group of alumnae who haven't known what I was talking about when I mention it. It starts early in our lives. We begin to defer. We don't say what we really mean. We are uncomfortable with conflict, so we will do just about anything to avoid it. That undermines the influence we can have and the change we can make in the world. I look at every one of the girls at our school as a person who will lead her society. Some will be on the front page of the New York Times , others will lead quietly in their communities, most of them will be in families, influencing the next generation. It is important that they learn to say what they believe; it's important that they know that what they think about things has value and that they can't sit back and wait for others to take action. Society says to girls that what's important is thinness, popularity, and beauty.

Those are the altars at which a girl is tempted to worship. It's not that these things are bad, but if they run a girl's life, they close her off from being authentic and doing authentic work. A fourteen- year-old girl may not be able to talk about this as I have here, but she lives it every day. Membership in the "popularity club" is highly valued, and girls (as well as adults) will not risk losing membership. At Miss Hall's School we're working on how to break all of that apart. We want to show girls another way to organize themselves in relationship to each other.

I have observed that the giving process itself facilitates the development of this sense of personal authority and authentic self. Something is happening in an individual right up to the time that the gift is made, and even afterward. Something changes in us when we give, because we have had to go through a thought process that involves, as Paul Schervish says, who we are and where we've come from. The personal archeological dig that we do leads us to ask, "What's really important to me? What do I want to provide for others?" and helps each of us to clarify who we are. We have many programs in schools now that involve young people in community service. But we need to do more to get them to think about their role as philanthropists. I like to ask girls at Miss Hall's if they are philanthropists. They're not sure. Then I ask them, "How many of you have ever made a donation to your United Way or your local Brownie troop or Scout drive?" Every hand goes up. Philanthropy, as we well know, is not the exclusive domain of the wealthy.

That usually leads me to discuss the fact that everyone who has made her way to Miss Hall's, regardless of how much her parents have, is wealthy in comparison to her global peer group. Even those who may be receiving full financial aid are in the top few percent of all girls their age in terms of the opportunity and the gift they are receiving through this education. In our society, we don't emphasize enough that with those gifts and rights comes responsibility. To whom much has been given, much is expected. When I have this conversation with girls, I say to them: "The world expects from you not only your philanthropic support for those things that matter to you, but your creative ideas, your problem-solving skills, and your hard work to make part of this world better." This is a new and big idea to most of them. I say, "The world needs your time, your talent, and your treasure; your wealth, your wisdom, and your work." In the end, I am asking them, "What makes you you, and what are you going to do with that?"

Jeannie Norris, director of Miss Hall's School in Massachusetts.