Philanthropy works in mysterious ways. For all the doubts that I have about social media, it has the ability to turn a good cause viral.
In early April, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, serving southern Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish, was completely destroyed by an arsonist who has since been arrested. This was the third church in 10 days to be reduced to rubble in a series of racially motivated attacks. St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre and the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas were also severely damaged. The community was devastated and began an online fundraising campaign, which raised $50,000 — generous, but hardly enough to rebuild.
A short while later, on April 15, Notre Dame — the 12th century cathedral in the heart of Paris — also began to burn. What is suspected to be electrical fire did enormous damage to the icon — a French icon, but also a building that millions around the world had visited and embraced. People from around the world began to donate funds. My wife and I decided to donate funds to both the Louisiana churches and the Notre Dame campaigns. At the same time, several French billionaires went public with their plans to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Notre Dame. I had lived in Paris, a 10-minute walk from Notre Dame, and thousands of people were posting their Parisian selfies online and grieving over the loss.
As charitable donations poured in, the publicity of Notre Dame caused an online backlash, with people questioning donor intent (altruism or self-aggrandizement?), donor choice (why the French church and not those in Louisiana?) and donor mission (not to cure cancer or fund the protesting yellow shirts or feed the poor? Doesn’t the Catholic Church have billions of dollars to spare? Surely the French government is able to repair its own national landmarks?).
And the backlash produced … more philanthropy! Because of the public comparison of Notre Dame and the Louisiana churches, money began rolling in — in Louisiana. I followed the St. Landry Parish campaign, which had a goal of $1.8 million. A mere three days after Notre Dame burned, the Louisiana campaign had risen from $50,000 to $1.6 million in donations. On April 22, it had surpassed its goal and raised $2.2 million.
The simple truth is that people love to help other people. We are empathetic beasts. And whether you support a church across the country or across the world, or the community center in your neighborhood, or the domestic abuse shelter across town, or the local Boys and Girls Club, or the public library, you are helping people. And it feels good, doesn’t it? To know that you helped a bit. To know that you gave others an opportunity you’ve already enjoyed. To know that you are part of a movement — a community of giving.
Sociologists say we are more isolated than ever, partly due to social media. Yet the flip side is that you can become part of a giving circle — local, national, international — that joins you with others around common cause. Philanthropy is not limited by geography, it is only limited by our intent and ability to give of ourselves. That this giving transcended place, religion and race — that so many millions were donated by people who felt something in their own heart — was all the sweeter for coinciding with a month celebrating both Passover and Easter, religious rituals that combine self-sacrifice, reflection and community.
And speaking of circles. Where did Louisiana get its name? It was named after King Louis XIV of France, the 17th century “Sun King” who built Versailles. Four centuries later, the two share another, far more inspiring, connection.
Tom Linfield is vice president of community impact for the Madison Community Foundation.
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