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Giving: Our Life's WorkGiving: Our Life's Work
President Peggy Ryan Williams

Community Foundation of Tompkins County Annual Meeting
Ithaca, New York, September 22, 2003

Thank you. Good evening.

Bravo to all of you, and especially to the leadership of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, for all you have accomplished to date.

George Vaillant, the professor of psychiatry famed for his research on the coping mechanisms of humankind, describes altruism as "getting pleasure from giving to others what you yourself would like to receive." Altruism is one of the mature adaptations to life.  As such, it provides a welcome alternative to its opposite: getting pain from taking from others what you yourself would rather not receive.  Whatever it is called, the expression of altruism is not only an experience that is existentially satisfying; altruism, as sociobiologist Edmund Wilson describes, is a requirement for the survival of one’s culture.  To that end, Wilson asserts that altruism is transferred genetically from generation to generation and that such transfer occurs because it has survival value.  In more specific terms, cultures whose members express altruism in the form of forgiveness and grace survive.  Cultures that lack the capacity for altruistic forgiveness and grace die.1 

Wilson says that altruism is "generosity without hope of reciprocation" and a "transcendental quality that distinguishes human beings from animals."2

"It allows us to express empathy and sympathy for others.  It is a truly elegant adaptation to life."3

As I continue with my remarks, I encourage you to use any of these words as synonyms: altruism, charity, philanthropy, service, and giving.  I will not be discussing fine points of definition tonight.

This evening I will share some early memories of how ideas and expectations about altruism and giving came to me early in life.  Then I will discuss higher education as a laboratory or practice field for developing the capacity for citizenship.  Finally, I will share some thoughts about community foundations, touching on my experiences in Vermont and what Community Foundation of Tompkins County can do.

I.  My Childhood and Adolescence

Let me briefly convey how I was exposed to ideas about charity.  I will share some vivid memories of my early childhood and adolescence while growing up in Montreal.

I remember going door to door with Mother canvassing, for a number of years, for the Cancer Society.  I volunteered with Dad at the Benedict Labre House, a Catholic Worker Movement soup kitchen down on the harbor.  We delivered turkeys to the Franciscans at Christmas.  Since they were in a cloister and had no contact with the public, we passed gift baskets into a dark hole with a closed door at the other end. We brought toys to families around Christmas.  It made an impression on me to visit families we did not know in neighborhoods where we did not live.  On Boxing Day, December 26, we gave away toys we were not using.  It was a pact with my parents for the gifts we had just received.  Every season, we gave away clothes.  When I was 14 years old, I sold daffodils on St. Catherine Street for the Cancer Society with the Sacred Heart School of Montreal.  At 15, I volunteered at the Montreal Children's Hospital.

I remember my father going out at night to meetings of the Boys Club and Catholic Charities.  He often commented about giving, "You can’t take it with you."

I have vivid memories of my parents' and my activities.  These provided me the opportunity at an early age to see these kinds of efforts firsthand.  What questions was I asking at the time?  What was I learning?

All of this instilled in me a sense of social responsibility, of doing the right thing.  Both my family and my education taught me in the Catholic tradition of social justice and liberation theology.

My first career was as a social worker. I did that for four and one-half years.  I applied to VISTA when I graduated from college.  I won't go into the details about how the Quebec separatism movement affected my plans.  I have incorporated service and giving into my adult life.  I always feel that I should do more.

II. Turning to My Professional Life

So how do all of these perspectives, beliefs, and attitudes fit with my career in higher education, especially as president and spokesperson for an institution of higher education?

I believe that the work and purpose of higher education is to educate the leaders of tomorrow, not just for the professional lives they will lead but for their lives as citizens of the community and the world. My resonance with higher education stems from my love of the life of the mind, coupled with my belief that our ultimate obligation, to develop the mind, will bring a significant impact to those who honor it.

I envision that each IC graduate will possess two capacities: "knowing," the capacity to know and to keep knowing, and "knowing better," the capacity and commitment to share one’s knowledge for the benefit of others.   "Knowing" is the capacity for learning.  What I call "knowing better" is the capacity for citizenship.  "Citizenship" here refers to the responsibility of the individual to the larger society -- family, friends, and all persons, known and unknown to us, with whom we share this planet.

So what is "capacity for citizenship?"

Capacity for citizenship is, in my view, defined as the development of a sense of civic and social engagement and responsibility.  It rests on a firm foundation of a sense of "other" and a sense of "connectedness" with other.  In their research on individuals who have made a lifelong commitment to fostering and serving the common good, Daloz et al. found that "the single most salient pattern . . . was what we have come to call a constructive engagement with otherness," coming to know "someone who was significantly different from themselves."  As different as the individuals who were studied were, they held in common "a concern for a future that includes everyone, a conviction that regardless of difference, everyone counts."4 

To that end, we must teach explicitly and implicitly that the quid pro quo for a college degree is assuming responsibility for sharing one's knowledge for the benefit of others, affecting the world in ways that make it a better place for all its citizens.

Educator Parker Palmer in his book To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey challenges us when he asks whether "we are educating students in ways that make them responsive to the claims of community upon their lives. . . . Are they simply learning to compete for scarce rewards as isolated individuals, or are they learning how to create communities of abundance in their lives as both learners and citizens?"5  We must nurture this orientation among students.

In my view, the capacity for learning has, as its ultimate aim, the capacity of citizenship.  College is the place to develop and practice this capacity and to get good at it for life after graduation as community citizens.

On the more practical side, colleges and universities are exempt from taxation by law.  With that comes, or should come, the expectation that the presence of a college or university and its faculty, staff, and students should make a positive difference in the local community where it resides. It should make a difference that IC is here, not just in terms of the significant economic impact we have, but impact beyond that.  The community should be a brighter, better, and more caring place because of our presence.

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to serve communities beyond the campus, and in carrying out this institutional responsibility, we provide our students with the opportunity, while in college, to practice altruism and giving themselves.  They will develop a sense of individual responsibility and commitment to take with them throughout their lives after they graduate.  This is my hope and expectation for each of our students. We are the laboratory or practice field where they can develop this capacity and life orientation.  Our faculty and staff, with all they contribute, are the role models and guides.

Ernest Boyer, a leading higher education researcher and leader, wrote, "In the end, the goal of the undergraduate experience is not only to prepare the graduates for careers, but to enable them to live lives of dignity and purpose, not only to give knowledge to the student, but to channel knowledge to humane ends."6   Research has shown that many students who have volunteered in college continue to do so throughout their lives.  In my case, I’d say "volunteer in high school."

III. Turning to Community Foundations

I will speak briefly about my role and experience in service and giving.

The Vermont Community Foundation was founded in 1987.  I served as a director from 1990-96 and chaired the Ford/MacArthur Project on Rural Sustainability from 1993-96.

The concept of a community foundation is compelling. I commend all of you for your leadership and support of this idea.  With it, we create the opportunity to develop the culture of giving right here at home.  We provide tangible ways to see how one can help and what a difference one can make.  Such entities are essential to community and to developing strength and capacity therein.  The Community Foundation of Tompkins County presents an opportunity for us to pull together, raise funds, and then turn those funds right back to support important initiatives in our own backyard.  People like to see their charity "go to work," and these funds -- applied close to home -- do just that.

Donor-advised funds are a great vehicle for those who wish to make a long-term commitment to charity and who do not want to have to manage regular giving on their own nor set up their own foundation.

I have also seen how the donor-advised funds and the grant funds can work together.  For example, a grant request that cannot be funded due to inadequate resources or mismatch with foundation priorities may match up nicely with the priorities of a donor-advised fund.  Likewise, a community foundation might see a theme among priorities among unrelated donor-advised funds and take that as a signal to refocus its priorities for the grants side of the program.

Finally, the community foundation also serves as a litmus test and educator for the county and the region by funding needs and opportunities that come to its attention through the grants process.  It is one way of saying, “What does this community need, and what are its interests as well?”

I give you three examples from the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) and its developments, over time, beyond the grant-making and donor-advised funds:

  • The Youth at Risk Project
  • The Vermont Women's Foundation: This component fund of the VCF supports the advancement and self-sufficiency of Vermont women and girls.  It encourages women to be philanthropists and acknowledges the fact that women are becoming more prominent in philanthropy.
  • Grantsmanship: VCF provided technical assistance to small not-for-profits that lacked significant staff.

I firmly believe that people should give their money away and that the next generation in most cases should not expect to be taken care of.  When I read about high-flying salaries that get out into the press, I am often heard to say, "I sure hope they are giving most of it away."  Regrettably, I don't think that is the case.

As you well know, our elected officials are strongly encouraging individuals to take responsibility for supporting local causes, and discouraging us from looking to the government at any level to do this for us.  Recently I read an article about a high-ranking, elected official with combined household income of over $400,000, who gave less than $3,000 to charity, $1,000 of which was clothing and other items.  This amounted to six tenths of one percent of income. In this same article it was reported that the average family donates 3.2 percent of income to charitable causes.  We all know the important role that the $25 and $50 gifts play, especially in annual giving.  That is all well and good, but if we are saying that private financial resources must provide more and more support for critical programs and initiatives, then we must look to those who have significant resources to set the pace.  If Congress had consulted me about the tax cuts, I would have advised doubling the exemption for charitable giving instead.

I believe, as members of a community, it is our collective responsibility to contribute in ways that will make our "village" a better place for all its residents.  Dorothy Day, whose entire life was one of service, taught us that every act of community service improves the society and renews those who engage in service.

So what is community?  Community provides a sense of connectedness with one another based on a foundation of shared values and dreams, and is comprised of individuals in pursuit of common purposes. It is not Camelot, for it does not imply the absence of hard work or differences. In fact, I once heard someone define "community" as "that place where the person you least want to live always lives."

In closing tonight, let us celebrate the notion of community and the significant role that the Community Foundation of Tompkins County plays in making this community a better and more caring place in the years to come.

I leave you with these two thoughts:

From Parker Palmer: "I lead by word or deed, because I am here doing what I do."7

And in the words of Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And if I am only for myself, what am I?"8  

Thank you.


[1] Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (San Diego: University Associates, 1988), p. 71.

[2] Ibid., p. 126.

[3]  Ibid., p. 125.

[4]  Laurent A. Daloz et al., "Lives of Commitment," Change 28, no. 3 (May/June 1996): p. 12.

[5]  Peggy R. Williams, “Knowing and Knowing Better: Education for Self and for Community” (inaugural address, Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY, March 28, 1998).

[6]  Ernest L. Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 219.

[7] Parker J. Palmer, Leading from Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership (Washington, D.C.: The Servant Leadership School, 1990).

[8] Quoted in Paul Rogat Loeb, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), p. 1.