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Black Women to Watch in Philanthropy: Karen Boykin-Towns

Karen Boykin-Towns, vice chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors

How do you define philanthropy?

Karen: When I think about philanthropy, I think about Nelson Mandela’s philosophy of Ubuntu, which stands for universal support for humanity, and the philosophy “I am because we are.” To me, philanthropy which embodies Ubuntu, affirms our interconnectedness; it’s about loving your neighbor and your community, and helping others without being asked. All my philanthropy is driven by this concept.

What is your philanthropic strategy and what advice would you give other philanthropists?

This is how philanthropy works in my house: at the end of the year, my husband and I think about who we can help. We support our church through tithing. We support institutions that have helped us and our kids. We may also make contributions to organizations that our friends or family have asked us to support.

I tell others that you don’t have to be a millionaire or a billionaire to be philanthropic. I advise them to think about giving in terms of the three t’s: time, talent and treasure; then be philanthropic and contribute to organizations in a way that works for you.

I am on the board of Brewster Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire, that my kids attended.  Boarding schools are thought of as being elite and expensive, but a lot of kids from less prosperous backgrounds attend them. I support Brewster with my time, talent and treasure, and I am particularly drawn to its efforts to fundraise for student aid.

I am also vice chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors. The NAACP fights for social justice every day and is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the U.S. Being vice chair is an incredible honor, and I give a lot of my time to the organization. However, I don’t’ think of my work for NAACP as philanthropic; to me, it’s my duty to serve because of what I have derived from society. My service honors others who fought for freedom before me. It’s what I must do to keep Black people free and to help America live up to its true purpose.

What are you most hopeful about? Tell me about some bright spots you’ve seen in the cause(s) you care about? 

I don’t wear rose-colored glasses, but I am very optimistic. I see many bright spots in our young people. They have a natural connection with causes and they like to help others! I’ve seen this first-hand through my daughters and their friends. The way the younger generation is moving forward gives me a lot of hope.

Who are your philanthropic sheroes?

My shero is a woman named Whitney White who is barely 30. She’s an African American and a Brewster graduate. Whitney is my shero because she is an emerging philanthropic leader. She has a perspective on philanthropy, which involves engaging young people, that she is sharing with the world. After Whitney graduated from college, she returned to Brewster to start a new philanthropy program there.  She did a great job of educating students, parents, and alumni about the importance of giving.

Then Whitney moved to the west coast to teach a new generation about philanthropy. She has a program in San Francisco called Philanthropy for Kids, where she teaches philanthropy and empathy.  She’s guiding San Francisco children to collect food for the homeless and to see them as human beings. By sharing her energy for philanthropy with children and others, she’s redefining it.

Do Black women do philanthropy differently?

I don’t know exactly how others approach it, but my guess is yes, since we do most things differently. Philanthropy comes naturally for us. We give resources to family members who are in need and to our churches. We spend a lot of time in our communities volunteering for different organizations.

The average Black woman who is giving may not see herself as philanthropic. She feels that she’s just helping others because she’s blessed. It’s like the gospel song by Kurt Carr, Bless Somebody Else. That’s how I have lived my life. God has blessed me; now I must help somebody else. Because we feel blessed, most Black women fill in the gap where and when we can. That’s what we do. Time and time again.

To meet other amazing Black women to watch in philanthropy, read The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy!

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