My journey from advocate to philanthropist

December 14, 2018
by Gordon Irlam

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the National Center for Family Philanthropy blog.

Long before I had the means to become a philanthropist, I was a volunteer looking to make a difference in the world. My passion was global health and development, so I got involved with an advocacy group called RESULTS. I met with my members of Congress to push for increased funding, wrote letters to my local paper, and traveled to El Salvador to learn about microcredit.

It’s probably no surprise that my experience as a volunteer advocate influences my work today as a philanthropist. The problems I was working on – global poverty, hunger, disease, and education – were big, and still are. Individuals could only do so much, but governments and institutions could leverage all their resources and do a lot more. I saw that advocacy was a remarkably effective way to influence governments and institutions to tackle important problems. After all, not a lot gets done if no one is pushing for it.

That’s why, as a donor, I give to advocacy organizations that work on global health and development (including RESULTS, where I got my start as a volunteer). I not only give, but I have a website called Back of the Envelope Guide to Philanthropy that tracks the effectiveness and impact of each organization. A lot of people wonder why I would be so transparent about my philanthropy. There are two main reasons. First, I think it’s important to have norms in society when it comes to wealth. As the head of a small family foundation, I receive tax breaks, so I believe it’s my obligation to be open about what I’m doing with the money. Second, people working on similar issues see my website and contact me to explore opportunities to collaborate. I think the real question is: Why wouldn’t I be transparent, given all the positive benefits?

Volunteering for a global advocacy organization transformed the way I see the world. The issues I read about or saw on the news became real. I gained a clearer sense of the problems that needed to be solved and learned how I could contribute to solving them. That’s what I did as a volunteer advocate, and what I continue to do today as a philanthropist.

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