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What is Philanthropy … Really?

After recently writing a post on entitlement, I’d thought I’d blog about a topic that is quite the opposite – philanthropy. Also known as charity or giving back, this concept comes in many forms. Many people think of philanthropy in terms of giving money to a cause, but it can also designate donating items (such as clothes or food) or giving our time and/or talent, which can be just as valuable (if not more so) as monetary gifts.

Sometimes the line between philanthropy and privilege can become muddied. For example, when a large benefactor donates a large sum of money for the tax write-off benefit, or because they want to garner a positive image for the public. And sometimes charities appear to be doing good things but really taking or using the money for something else. Luckily this isn’t the norm, but it shows the different levels and types of giving.

And there can be other subtleties regarding the “public good.” This was the case in the book I just read, Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark, an Associate Professor in the MFA program and the English Department here at Rutgers-Newark. The book jumps between two timeframes – the early 1960s and early 2000s ­– as well as two main settings: Philadelphia and the fictional Cape Deel, Maine. Main characters Agnes and Polly are lifetime friends who divide their time between homes in Philadelphia (a Rittenhouse Square apartment for Agnes and an estate in the posh suburb of Haverford for Polly) and grand summer homes in Maine (Agnes’s is named Leeward Cottage and Polly’s is called Meadowlea). These homes are located on the pristine peninsula called Fellowship Point, built years ago by their wealthy Quaker ancestors. But as the original family members are dwindling, Agnes wants to protect the area by donating the land to a trust. To do this, however, she must convince shareholders to dissolve a generations-old partnership. This includes Polly’s grown children who don’t agree with the idea.

While both women come from similar backgrounds, their lives have been quite different. Agnes, a successful writer of children’s books (and a series of novels written under a mysterious pseudonym), never married or had children, whereas Polly was a devoted wife and mother to a rather needy husband and family. But both women are fortunate and have everything they could need monetarily. This is made even more clear with the introduction of Maud, a young single mother who works as an editor at Agnes’s publishing house and wants to edit the famous author’s memoirs. Maud has not had the same type of life – her mother suffers from mental illness, and she has often played the role of caretaker to both her and now her young daughter. She is not poor, but she is not privileged either.

Both Agnes and Polly are generous on many levels. However, as Agnes delves more into the issue of donating the land to a trust, she is bothered by the nagging reality that her descendants were not the original landowners. The indigenous people of the area were there before her family, and in fact did not believe that anyone owned the land. Should she give the land to the trust or back where it came from? This book is a slow burn leading up to this question, with undertones of what it means to be privileged and able to give back.

For further reading on similar topics, try:

More by Alice Elliott Dark: