Kirsten Johansen- Philanthropy is ‘Uniquely American’

It’s been widely publicized just how corrupt the non-profit industry is. Given my over 20-year career in the industry, I won’t even try to deny that claim. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve seen people betray the trust of others by inappropriately using charitable donations for private benefit. It’s horrible. It makes you look at the line of work you’re in and wonder if you’re meant to do this. It would have been easy for me to walk away from working with non-profits. I could have left it in the hands of those corrupt people. But that’s not what I was taught to do when I saw a problem. I was taught to outlast it and work to do things the right way. That’s been a strong force that’s guided me ever since I started.

When I moved to Washington D.C. in 1993, I told myself I was only going to be there for a few months. I had just gotten my Master’s degree from the University of Southern California and didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. I certainly didn’t have any understanding of the non-profit industry, something I would become acutely familiar with in the coming years. I would spend a few months in Washington D.C. and gain some experience and then go back to the west coast. Funny how things work out some times.

I began working for a non-profit on Capitol Hill working on a dossier. During my down time I would help out with my local church, St. John’s of Georgetown. I would hardly classify what I did during that time as working for the non-profit industry. It was merely social outreach that introduced me to a group of really great people, which anyone who has moved to a new city will say is a good thing to have. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Pam Prochnow that I officially began my now 20+ year career in the non-profit industry.

The PH Prochnow Group was a multi-faceted fundraising organization that was associated with all types of organizations from the Peace Corps to political parties. I look back on that experience and like to think of it as my “boot-camp” training. I was thrown in the fire and bombarded with new information, new people, new organizations, and new experiences. I was exposed to an entirely new scene. Even though it was chaotic and I certainly made my fair share of mistakes, I still credit those years as essential to my success today. I learned so much about the industry and how to maintain support for a cause. Somehow, being thrown in the fire actually left me stronger than before. Nevertheless, I still felt that that area of wasn’t suited for me. So much of what I was doing was geared towards events. I wanted to be involved in more than just purchasing a table at a gala. I was really geared towards the individual community.

After a brief stint with CARE (famous for delivering 60% of foreign aid during the Berlin Airlift, they still deliver care packages to impoverished or war-torn countries), I found a new home at the National Historic Trust for Preservation. Beyond combining my love for American history with my passion for natural beauty, I wasn’t interacting with corporations anymore. I got to deal with individuals whose relationship with the organization extended beyond passive donations. These people had complex ideas. They had energy. They wanted to provide help that extended beyond writing a check. It was here that I really discovered why non-profits extract the best of American virtues from people.

Philanthropy is uniquely American. Unlike other nations where charitable activity is considerably lower, we Americans are moved by a profound sense to willingly give back. We are willing to give back because we recognize just how fortunate we are to live in the society we do. We recognize the opportunities and institutions in American society that provide a unique environment to create and achieve success and strongly desire for the continued existence of that environment. We want to nurture and foster that environment so that others and future generations can achieve the same way we achieved.

It’s people like myself who believe in the genuinely good nature of non-profit industries that provide hope to one another in the face of corruption. We look at each other and know that we have the passion and the stamina to outlast any individual who wants to profit on short-term distortion of charitable organizations. Our fervent belief in what we do is what gives us the strength and the courage to stand up for those who trust us with their donations. We believe in what they believe and in what is a fundamental tenant of the American Dream: prosperity does not end with one generation. It is a responsibility of us all to leave a better life for our children than the one we were left with.


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