A Peddler Goes to Work

I am basically a "peddler," a salesman, someone who loves to be loved and thus intrinsically a mediator, a collaborator, and finder of middle ground. It is in my genes. My great grandfather sold sugar from a backyard mill in Shepatovka, a small village in the Ukraine 70km east of Kiev. In the America version, my grandfather sold meat in a kosher butcher shop in Haverhill, MA. My father sold hardware and stove grates from a narrow high-ceilinged store in Brockton, MA until the first of the big box discount stores mowed him over like a "Snapper" going through new grass. My brother sells stocks, my cousin toys, and so it goes. This profile is also wrapped around a glass-half-full conviction that all one needs to prevail is to have something substantive to say, to be true to it, and to use good words.It is no surprise I became a salesman but perhaps unexpected that I have ended up in the business, if it is a business, of selling philanthropy. I started out, while still in college and married with a baby, selling pots and pans to what at the time I called 'hope-chested' girls, a terrible line that for years I thought very funny — that is until my wife and daughters made it clear how 'hopeless' I was. For many good years I sold life insurance. It is where I really learned to listen to what people had to say, to what they held dear, to what they believed in. Later, I moved on to real estate investments and, through it all, I have tried to sell poems to small magazines no one has ever heard of.

I have a good friend who is a CEO of a large company, who loves to introduce me to ‘important’ people as basically a 'pot and pan' salesman, who gave up on pots, tried insurance and real estate, now sells philanthropy and has never really distinguished between them. And I think in some ways he is right although it is philanthropy that brought it all together.

It has been 16 years since I left the plain vanilla business world and segued to the non-profit organization called The Philanthropic Initiative, or the more pronounceable, TPI. Since inception in 1989, TPI has been an unabashed, flat-out attempt to market the ethic, concept and practice of strategic philanthropy, especially to those with substantial resources who are on the sidelines, those 'in the woodwork.'

Starting TPI was in some ways a complete shift, but I had been warming up to it for a long time. Over many years, I was a board member, and advocate, another word for salesman, for more than 30 organizations, programs, and commissions that dealt with criminal justice, mental health, human services, community development, the reorganization of state government, as well as the arts. It was then I learned first hand that philanthropy and community involvement is the best ‘graduate school’ experience in the world. The work, the people, the challenges, the opportunity to know others who are not like you, is like no other. I cannot fully explain why this kind of work drew me so, but it did. The satisfaction it gave, and the way in which I was able to use the best of me was integral to my persona long before TPI was founded. It may be I am better at this 'work', the work of organizing community and promoting social change, and feel more complete as a person when I do it, than any of the other things I have done. This has been even more true in regard to TPI where the experience over the last 15 years has been a gift to me. My wife could comment, if she were not so kind, that if I had worked this hard all of those years I was in business, we would have a lot more money than we have. True, but I never cared about those businesses the way I care about this one.

My slant on philanthropy is deep, personal and multi-layered. It might begin with a song from my youth called 'The Hokey Pokey', where you put your ‘whole self in’. By whole self, I do not mean big money, or even a monastic personal commitment, but I do mean a certain intensity, ambition, and clarity of goals. I can make philanthropy fit every aspect of ‘right’ action that is not covered by government and by the market economy. In fact some businesses may be ipso facto for profit philanthropies. My friend John, whose business makes medical devices that significantly reduce pain and cost, makes a very good case that such an enterprise is as good an expression of love of mankind as one that feeds and houses the poor.

I use the word philanthropy only because I haven't found a better one. There is a lot to like about the Greek root of the word, philos, which means love. For many, the word philanthropy seems a bit dated and formal, even off-putting. Philanthropy sounds like something right for Mr. Rockefeller but not for me. Maybe a better word will come to mind, or maybe a reader of this piece will think of one, a word that encompasses love and goodness, perhaps something about duty, about charity, about giving back, about generosity of self and spirit, about fairness, about justice, about doing the right thing.

It may seem like a curious idea to try and 'sell' philanthropy, but it turns out to be possible. In fact, that is what I hope the reflections and stories that follow will do. I hope it intrigues you, gives you a few ideas that are useful, maybe even excites you about the potential to make a difference.

So welcome to one person's version of the house of philanthropy. In it are many rooms, tables to sit at, people to talk to, stories and images galore, and watch out for the salesmen, they are everywhere. Welcome to the Karoff Corner!