Interview with Kathy LeMay
With an indomitable spirit and a keen sense of justice, Kathy LeMay has been tackling social change from a very early age. She challenges the old definitions of philanthropy and makes it accessible to everyone. Down-to-earth and clear-sighted, she really is the embodiment of “everybody matters.” Here is her story…
I grew up in the oldest mill town in the United States. This was at a time (late ‘70s, early ‘80s) when the United States was leaving behind the idea of democracy and civic participation as what made us great Americans, and shifting toward consumerism as what made us great contributors. Since our family didn’t have money, there was a real sense that we were not great Americans, that we weren’t helping our country, but taking from it. That was really an unpleasant message to hear over and over in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
My mom worked. My dad died of a brain tumor. I had a step-father, but he got ill. So we were working poor. We were seen as “taking” from the country. But I saw it as doing the best we were able. We volunteered and we gave our time. On Halloween, we had those little cardboard containers and collected pennies and dimes for UNICEF to give kids immunizations.
My mother really instilled in us the spirit of giving back and making a difference. She was Finnish and was raised under socialism. The emphasis was on “What do you do for the good of the country?” You don’t wait until you’re all set and then help your country. You do both at the same time. She’d often say, “There are always people worse off than you.” That really stuck with me.
I found activism at an early age. So many things pissed me off. I was just mad all the time about injustice and the treatment of women and children and animals. One day, my mother said, “Well, it’s good to be mad, but what exactly are you going to do about it?” So I started doing.
I was great at activism, but I avoided money as much as I could. It felt like a language I wasn’t versed in or a league in which I wasn’t a member. I was intimidated by people who had money. I’m not sure they made me feel small. What I know is that I felt small around them. I was always worried they might discover I didn’t go to boarding school or an Ivy League college, or that I grew up needing food banks and food stamps. I had a real sense of anxiety about feeling inadequate.
But as I moved along, I started to realize how much great work needed to be resourced. So I said, “Sure, I’ll try fundraising. How hard can that be?” And it became a lifetime endeavor. I’ve now raised $175 million from individuals for work I care deeply about: nationally, locally, and globally.
New Definitions of Generosity and Prosperity
In the process, I had to deeply confront my own self-image around money and class and generosity and prosperity. I realized that these definitions of generosity and prosperity had been handed to me. After I’d traveled to enough places, throughout the United States and the world, I realized, “Wait a minute, I think prosperity and generosity are much more expansive than I was told. I think they have a lot less to do with money and a lot more to do with your internal state of being, and your view of the world.” As Teddy Roosevelt so brilliantly said, “Your ability to do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
So I built this company and wrote a book on generosity to help us redefine what makes a philanthropist. What does it mean to live a prosperous life? Who are generous people? And not let this definition be so narrow, limited to the number of zeroes on a checkbook. Rather let it be the expression of one’s own humanity.
I once asked someone,
“Do you consider yourself a philanthropist?”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t have a lot of money.” She said she wasn’t poor or broke, but didn’t have money like Bill Gates and all that.
I said, “How much do you give away?”
“Most billionaires give away 1% of their net worth. So you give away 9% more. Now, just because there are more zeroes on their checks, are you saying that makes them more of a philanthropist?”
“I don’t know.”
“Years ago I met a woman who was a waitress and a single mom, raising kids on her own. But she felt so strongly about one charitable group in her community, she gave $25 a month. That was probably about 20% of her income. Would you say she’s not a philanthropist, because she gives less money than you?”
“Oh my goodness, no!”
“So is everybody a philanthropist except you?”
“Oh no! Why have I done that to myself?”
We’ve really been handed this idea of big names, big wallets, and big causes. But if you have a commitment to humanity and you put forward the resources you have: your financial resources, your time, your talent… If you stop and listen to people, if you go out of your way for someone and you don’t get anything in return… That’s actually philanthropy. The breakdown of the word philanthropy is the “love of humanity.” When you step up and offer people that, whatever those offerings look like, that is philanthropy.
People have criticized me for “diluting” the term philanthropist. But what I’ve found is that the more inclusive philanthropy is the more people feel, “There’s a place for me in this. I do have a role. I do matter.” More giving happens. When people feel they’re creating a change in life… That’s infectious and they want to do it even more. When you come from a place of “everybody matters, everyone’s involved,” more giving happens; versus, “Sorry, it’s only for people who can make a million dollar gift.”
I know people who make million dollar gifts—five, ten, one hundred million dollar gifts. I work with them and I know them. No part of them thinks, “Well, thank goodness for me, because I just saved that project.” They think, “Okay, this is the gift I have the capacity to make.” And they’re grateful because they know there’s a movement of people out there giving $25/month, all around the United States, North America, and the world. They know that the solid bottom of the pyramid is the critical mass of people who are making meaningful contributions to causes they care about. That’s what sustains the projects they can launch. There’s a place and a role for everyone.
Focusing on What We Do Have to Offer
The work I’m doing is to help people ask, ‘What does it look like for me to unleash my change agency? How do I know I’m part of something that’s bigger than me?” If you can get away from thinking, “I can’t do that, so I might as well do nothing because it’s not making a difference.” Or, how I once felt: “What could I possibly contribute in this world of people who are powerful and wealthy? Who am I? I’m just this kid from the mill town.”
I had to learn to stop focusing on what I felt I didn’t have to offer, and look at the characteristics and qualities I do have. Not just what’s in my checking account, but what are my gifts. And I realized that I’m smart and tenacious and resilient and I’m just a pit bull about things I care about. It gets done on my watch, no matter what it takes. I looked at all these things and thought, “That’s got to help social change. These things have to matter somewhere.” Rather than thinking, “I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, I’m not rich and I don’t know anyone famous.”
So I invite people to take another look and say, “Wait, I do have things to offer and those things have to matter.” And they do.
I invite people to ask, “What breaks my heart? What gives me hope?” Then start to do that. Someone told me once that the antidote to grief and heartbreak is to serve. One day, I was working with young people in Idaho and this unbelievably great girl stood up, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and said, “When I see everything that’s going on with world hunger, I don’t know what to do. It’s so huge and it’s so big and how do I help hungry people throughout the world?”
She’s 11 or 12 and she’s already carrying the weight of it on her shoulders. I looked at her and said, “For the moment, you go ahead and let me and all of my great colleagues worry about world hunger. You just take a deep breath…. Okay, now think about what you can do in your backyard here in Boise, ID. Because there are people in this community who don’t have enough food. And I bet you could do something about it. Call a local food bank and say, ‘My school and I want to do something meaningful and we want to make sure that families have enough food. Could we talk to you about what that could look like?’ Dig in. Don’t just say, ‘Oh we collected all these cans of food.’ Because we don’t really know if that’s what the families need.”
She wrote me an email six months later and said “I feel so much better because I’m doing something.”
You never know. By doing something in her backyard, and seeing the difference that happens… As this girl starts to meet with families and listen and learn and see the difference it makes when people do have enough food for their lives… Who knows? In 30 years, she could become the person who has a key to ending world hunger. She could become one of the important change agents of our time.
So I tell people, “Start where you are. The rest will follow. Just start where you are. Listen. Learn. Get involved. Jump right in. You don’t have to have a plan. Just show up and say, ‘I’d like to help.’ And the next piece will come. You’ll start seeing what that piece is. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You just have to begin.”
What is Prosperity?
Often people think prosperity is all about the good life or wealth… that image of milk and honey. But I know people who have a lot of financial resources, who are considered “prosperous” and yet I’m not sure there’s necessarily a wellness that comes with it. How do I define prosperity? I think it’s an internal and an external state of ease. The external is real. It’s not good to be poor. It’s bad. People do have the ability to be resilient around it, but they shouldn’t have to be. So the external state of ease is this state between rich and poor. You have enough for a comfortable and decent life.
The internal state of ease is knowing what your gifts are and feeling happy to offer them and happy to receive other people’s gifts into your world. That’s a heck of a balance to strike. Particularly in America, where it’s all about consuming and achieving more all the time.
Internal ease, for me, looks like this: I don’t actually feel like I have a profession; I feel like I have a purpose. Being in social change, my work feels less like a career and more like a calling. I don’t use this term lightly, because I know it has a lot of religious connotations and I don’t want to claim it as my own in any way… But when I saw so much unbelievable suffering, I had to take action.
I have a dear friend who is a great philanthropist. His tagline in life is “You can’t be a bystander to suffering.” It’s difficult to look at. Difficult to be around. But even in the pain of it, there’s some internal ease, because he’s doing everything he can. And he, alone, can’t end it or change it, but he can do his part.
For me, the internal ease comes from knowing I’m in my purpose work, knowing that I saw suffering and said, “Boy, that’s going to be a son of a gun to be exposed to that a lot, but okay, here we go!” It’s knowing that I’m doing what I was put here to do. Sometimes I have to recalibrate it: I wonder if I’m doing the best job possible or if I should be doing something slightly different. Questioning, feeling some unrest, is pretty healthy for me, as it brings forth the next iteration of my purpose work. But none of it, none of it, is for the faint of heart.
Most Valuable Lesson
The thing I’ve learned is that every single person matters. I’m not sure I ever thought that every single person didn’t matter. But there were times when I wasn’t sure I mattered. There were times, in my hopelessness and despair and grief, when I thought that if I disappeared, it’s not like I was making so much of a difference that anybody would notice. So I say everyone matters because I finally have included myself in that.
Every time I meet someone, I can’t wait to discover what they have to offer the world and what I can learn from them. It’s a really nice place to be. On a day-to-day basis, I’m completely in awe of and overwhelmed by how much people have to offer. And how different that is from what I have to offer. It’s the range of unique contributions that are untapped in this world, that’s what keeps me going. That’s why I’m so hopeful. Because we haven’t even begun to tap what everyone has to offer. We’ve been so busy telling people what they don’t have to offer that we keep missing out on these brilliant gems inside each person.
Imagine a World Where Everyone Contributes and Everyone Benefits
A world where everyone contributes and everyone benefits… What this could do is to help everyone see the potential of everybody in their community and not see anyone as a liability. I think when we see people as liabilities, we cut ourselves out of ease in terms of our potential.
What it could unleash—and the answer makes me happy—is “I don’t know.”
We haven’t even begun to see what we’re capable of designing and building together. Because we haven’t done it. For each of us, it’s looking at the space between our comfort zone and being afraid. That space “in between” is about trying something new—and with people who you historically haven’t hung out with that much.
You begin to see people as your allies and not anyone to work against. You see the shared values and not the labels. Then the bridge from where we are to the world we want to design doesn’t feel quite as far away as it did the day before. When there’s respect and admiration and dignity and love, quite a bit can get accomplished.