An Ode To Houston's Philanthropic Codes
Bayou City. Space City. Clutch City. Most diverse city in the United States. That's my hometown of Houston, Texas. And, according to Charity Navigator, in 2016 it ranked as our nation's most charitable city. Then achieved another notable national status with Houston charities raising the most money in 2017.
Here's my perspective on the city's latter claims to fame. As a Director of Advancement for a Houston nonprofit for close to twenty years, I have witnessed first-hand how Houstonians transact their good deeds. Some give from affluence and influence. Others prefer behind-the-scenes acts of charity. And many more share sacrificially of their time, talent and treasure. All do so via a variety of philanthropic codes. By codes, I'm not referring to restrictive rules that exclude or encumber. Not in our town. Rather, these codes explain why we conduct our generosity in the way we do. Each are embedded in the collective psyche of the city.
Generosity in Houston is inextricably linked with the currency of good business, good faith, goodwill and good works. This is evident in the city's institutional philanthropy, mediated and moved along by networks of legacy families, corporate leaders, and champions for the community. In an earlier era, Houston's charitable funding deals were sealed with signatures and handshakes. And little more. Today grantmaking from Houston foundations is serious business; its stewards take their charge seriously. Their decisions are strategic. Structured. Solution-oriented. Favorable toward sustainability and scalability. And they expect a serious social return on the philanthropic investment.
Just as serious and just as significant is the piety, pragmatism and patriotism that steers the generous impulses of everyday Houstonians. When the call goes out to bless the needy and care for the least amongst us, many of our citizens readily put faith into action. Take out their wallets. Roll up their sleeves. Pick up their shovels. And move a mountain or two. For others, the philanthropic calculus is based on a more common sense approach: "Pay it forward" and "You win, I win" and "We're all in this together" is the modus operandi. In other pockets of Houston you'll find that love of country, Texas pride and civic concern drive countless causes, neighborhood service projects and grassroots fundraising programs. This is generosity with bravado. A brasher and bolder brand of Houston philanthropy. A more populist version, if you will.
Change happens fast in Houston, for change's sake. We're known for tearing down entire city blocks, seemingly overnight, to clear the way for reimagining, reinterpreting, reinventing, rebuilding. True to this bent for frenetic, immediate and accelerated progress, our city raises donations fast and encourages giving that expedites the local good. The greater good. Even the global good. Houston projects onto its nonprofit endeavors its own unbridled entrepreneurialism, energy and enthusiasm. It invests in social sector programs that foster ingenuity, intellectual pursuit and international connectivity because it views itself as a city of innovators, thought-leaders and global citizens. Perhaps reflecting our aversion to zoning, Houston's philanthropy also rewards charitable ventures that push the boundaries upwards and outward because...well, just because this is Houston and there are no limits. Never down for the count, Houston knows there is no time to wallow in despair. When natural or self-inflicted disasters hit, our citizens come to the rescue and give lavishly towards recovery, rebound and revival. Redemption is the sweet song of Houston.
As a result, this world-class city is home to an array of world-class nonprofit, charitable and social sector ventures---all enabled by the various codes. All reflecting, in some form or fashion, the city's sensibilities. Some take the charge seriously to broker a social dividend for the betterment of all. To define what is most necessary, noble and nonnegotiable for all. Quite a few have a propensity to innovate at space-age speed. For the sake of progress many throw caution to the wind, defying convention and breaking out-of-bounds to claim the next frontier. From elevating the relevancy of the arts to education reform. From quantum leaps in medicine to next-generation NGO solutions addressing the complexities, convolutions and contradictions of America's 4th largest city. There is a steep trajectory upward and an asymmetrical sprawl outward. Both marvelous and messy at the same time. After all folks, this is Houston.
Take note. Here's the universal application. Wherever you conduct your nonprofit, charity or social sector cause, you will be wise to consider why your city conducts philanthropy in the way it does. Understand the sequences that wire the citizens of your town to give in the way they give. Assess and align. Learn its philanthropic codes. Memorize and recite its ode.