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Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy

photo of children's hands meeting in the middle of a circleEverybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve.
You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.
You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.
You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Love. Give. Go. Do.

Introduction to the Exhibit

We Have Always Been Philanthropists

Reframing, Redefining, Re-imagining Philanthropy

No building bears their names. No boardroom displays their portraits. No foundation sustains their legacy. And yet, the philanthropists best known to me are the ones in my family, church, and hometown. These are people who showed a profound love for humankind and taught me about giving. Freely sharing things of value to benefit others—the essence of philanthropy— these unassuming, everyday people had monumental influences on me and on the lives of many.

African American ancestors who have passed on and elders living today may seem unlikely philanthropists by conventional definitions, but their deeds amply prove otherwise. These way-makers exhibited an astonishing capacity for transcending circumstance to give thus earning their standing among other beacons of philanthropy. Calls for sacrifice, sometimes beyond reason, never diminished their bigheartedness or deep concern for generations to come.

Born enslaved, Harriet Tubman gave freedom. Robbed of education, Catherine Ferguson started a school. After shattering ceilings, Madam C.J. Walker opened doors. Forklift driver by trade, Matel Dawson lifted hopes. Retired from postal work, Thomas Cannon delivered assistance. Dealt hardships, Oseola McCarty granted scholarships. Grace and gratitude thread each of these stories, which are among the finest examples of philanthropy around.

The photography and stories shared in this exhibition are but a representative sample of the Black philanthropy that has shaped our communities and nation. In presenting illustrative stories about a select few, I venture to pay tribute to all African Americans whose sacrifices and gifts, whether modest or grand, honor past generations, inspire current generations and clear the way for posterity.

— Valaida Fullwood

Giving Back — From Book to Exhibit

When envisioning “Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited,” we set out to repurpose content from Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists and present it anew, rather than simply replicating the book on a museum wall. We published the book in 2011, and from that work provocative questions and fresh ideas have emerged. As a result, “The Soul of Philanthropy” is designed to cover new ground, to plumb beneath the surface of why and how people give and to spur generosity borne of the heart, hands, mind and soul, in concert. So while the book serves as a moving tribute, the exhibit and its programs are meant to compel us toward a triumphant movement of conscious giving for social change.

Drawing with light is both a literal and metaphorical description of photography. Our exhibition draws inspiration from that definition as well as from the root meaning of philanthropy: love of what it means to be human. Each a potent concept on its own, combined, these ideas have fueled the design and programming for our exhibition. This exhibit illuminates the human impulse to show compassion, to progress, to see fairness, to connect with others and to love. We have composed an experience where the images glow, the stories enlighten and the desire to give back is set afire. In reframing portraits of philanthropy, we want viewers to embrace and act on the fact that we each have the capacity to give more and wiser.

About the Author and Photography

photo of Valaida FullwoodValaida Fullwood

Described as an idea whisperer Valaida brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer, public speaker and consultant. She is the award-winning author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, a 400-page hardcover book profiling stories of philanthropy among African Americans that was developed with photographer Charles Thomas. Giving Back was named one of the 10 Best Black Books of 2011 and received the prestigious 2012 McAdam Book Award, which celebrates “the most inspirational and useful new book for the nonprofit sector.” In 2014, Valaida was named Lake Distinguished Visitor at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a founding member of New Generation of African American Philanthropists and blogs at

photo of Charles W. Thomas, Jr.Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

Charles is an artist-photographer, educator and entrepreneur. Formerly Executive Director at Queen City Forward, he is now the Program Director in Charlotte for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Charles is owner of Sankofa Photography and the photographer of Giving Back. Collaborators on the book, Charles and Valaida Fullwood are featured in a TEDx Talk on philanthropy and have developed “The Soul of Philanthropy” exhibition. Charles currently serves on the boards of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and East Mecklenburg High School Foundation and is an active member of New Generation of African American Philanthropists. Charles is married to Micaila Milburn and is the proud father of three beautiful boys. His photographic work can be found at

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