You Are a Philanthropist

Question: After contributing money to a local charity last year, they sent me a note thanking me for my philanthropy. That surprised me because on a recent episode of “60 Minutes” they talked about Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett as philanthropists and how they formed a club for philanthropists. The criteria to enter their club were: 1. Be worth more than $1 billion, and 2. pledge to give away at least 50 percent of your assets while you are still alive, or through your estate plan. If those folks are philanthropists what am I?

Answer: I think most people are somewhat confused about the definition of a philanthropist. When you hear “philanthropist” you might conjure up thoughts of wealthy people you remember from history class like steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and oil baron John D. Rockefeller, or people in today’s news like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. You have heard more about Gates and Buffett recently because of the attention given them on “60 Minutes” over their Giving Pledge Club for Billionaires.

There are only 536 billionaires in the United States, according to Forbes Magazine. That leaves 323 million of us who are not eligible to join the club. But you don’t have to be a billionaire to be a philanthropist. In fact, you don’t have to have money at all. There are three definitions listed for philanthropist in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: 1. A wealthy person who gives money and time to help make life better for other people; 2. one who make an active effort to promote human welfare; and 3. the kid’s definition, a person who gives generously to help other people.

I like the kid’s version — giving generously to help others. Over time, we realize that the government can’t provide for everybody’s every need. People need each other’s help. When an arsonist torched the Salinas Food Bank’s trucks and refrigerator last March, nobody from the government took charge. It was the Community Foundation for Monterey County that led the way, joined by the Monterey Peninsula Foundation and other people and organizations to keep food delivery services to the poor intact. That’s giving time and money generously.

It’s been reported that Mark Zuckerberg recently pledged to donate $45 billion of his Facebook stock to charity. That’s obviously very generous. However, we can be sure he will still have plenty of cash to buy whatever he wants. Compare that to the office worker who works hard to make ends meet and who still stops at the sandwich shop to buy the homeless person a sandwich. That office worker is as much a philanthropist as anybody.

Philanthropy can and should start at a young age. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts learn to “do good deeds.” School children perform community services, first as groups cleaning beaches and parks and later as individuals volunteering at places like hospitals, senior centers and SPCAs. Philanthropy doesn’t have to involve a lot of money and the ultra-wealthy don’t own the word. Small donations from big hearts mean a lot. Sometimes giving one’s time to help others might be as big a sacrifice as it is for a billionaire to write a check.


Kenneth B. Petersen is an investment adviser and principal of Monterey Private Wealth Inc. in Monterey. Send questions concerning investing, taxes, retirement or estate planning to 2340 Garden Road, Suite 202, Monterey 93940 or