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Monday, October 29, 2007

Human Warming

Giving from Shanghai to Guatemala to Chico
By, Alexa Leigh Valavanis

Shortly after the 21st century arrived I accepted a job across the ocean, on the central coast of China. The destination was a booming metropolis called Shanghai. At the time, Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat” hadn’t been released, and there were only a couple of places amid the bustling Shanghainese vendors to buy Big Macs (McDonalds) and Caramel Macchiatos (Starbucks). The prime-time reality show “Survivor” wasn’t there yet, nor was the National Basketball Association’s preseason. In fact, when I landed in the ‘Paris of the East’ the Canadian dollar was as it always had been – behind ours, and our Nation was not at war.

It felt like a different time.

I was just leaving the coveted shelter of academia, with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a four-year career as a “Wildcat” point-guard under my belt. Up to that point in my life, I’d had very little time to experience other cultures, contemplate globalization, glean the realities of poverty, or examine the morality of actions – as individuals and world citizens.

That would change.

After I finished a year in China working for International Kindergartens I took to travel. I journeyed throughout Southeast Asia to villages in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. In small doses I began to absorb the reality about the way most of the people on the planet lived – or survived. I became bound by the moral and ethical obligations I learned as a child, yet only then could begin to grasp. Throughout those first years abroad, I listened and learned about the abundance generated through simplicity and gratitude.

Asia broke wide-open a new hunger for humanity within me. I found my way to Central America where my heart was pulled to work. The lessons in this ancient Latin land echoed those of Asia yet were wrapped in very different colors, flavors and sounds. In Guatemala, I established a nonprofit foundation with a Nigerian doctor and three colleagues. Our foundation would strive to redefine the role, impact and sustainability of foreign-aid.

The highlands of Guatemala held me. The people overflowed with generosity and grace. During the next couple of years, I would travel throughout Nicaragua and El Salvador and be met with similar lessons in patience, compassion, and above all else, generosity.

The more I experienced there - the more I shared here. What resulted was an immense outpouring of compassion and eagerness from people who wanted to get engaged. When others heard about the challenges, injustices, or disasters facing their global neighbors they were moved to help; compelled by their internal compasses to do something.

Some people sent money while others prayed. Some people committed to our cause while others volunteered for new projects at home. But, overwhelmingly people met the needs with actions. It was then, that my belief in the power of philanthropy was solidified. Moreover, it was in these days that my understanding of human connectedness took root.

Today, we live in an interdependent world. One nation’s struggles deeply impact the rest of us. We are all vulnerable to changes in climate, the spread of disease and terrorist threats. We are more intertwined than ever before. Technology has bridged the natural divides and generated interconnectedness on a profound level.

We see each other. We hear each other. We impact each other.

Everyday I see evidence of this connectedness and the vast generosity of human-beings. People around the globe, and certainly here at home, are eager to help when they learn how they can make a difference. The statistics are staggering. Seventy percent of American households give some money to charity each year. In 2006, Americans gave almost two percent of our Gross Domestic Product (nearly $300 billion) to places of worship, emergency relief or to meet local community needs.

Philanthropy is becoming more and more hands on. People not only want to give, they want to do more of it. They want to share that experience with their family and friends. The great challenge is not in convincing people to give, but sharing with them a genuine opportunity to be effective.

Contemporary philanthropy is coining new phrases like ‘social entrepreneurship’ and ‘return on social investments’ for a reason. The standards for philanthropy are rising. Expectations are increasing. Transparency is a mandate, and accountably a must. Our billionaires are giving, our millionaires are giving, and the woman across the street that lived modestly her entire life - is giving to make our world better.

For the past three years I’ve had the privilege of working here, in Northern California as the CEO of the North Valley Community Foundation. I’ve witnessed firsthand the generosity of our local residents. Together, we are creating new ways to address the pressing social needs facing our communities. We are developing innovative strategies to mobilize resources to meet those needs, and achieve measured results. Our method is a hands-on, heart and mind approach to change. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of it.

The more I experience and engage in philanthropy, the more inspired I become. It doesn’t matter what you call it or how you do it, there is no doubt that people are engaged in GIVING. Here and around the globe – people are GIVING. Perhaps, more than ever before, there is a movement of organized and effective generosity.

I call it, human warming!

[Published November 2007, UpState Business Journal]