October 5, 1998
Volume 51, No. 7
Giving to others doesn't only involve 'treasure,' time will do as well
Sisters and Brothers of Emory, I thank you for welcoming me into this very special university family. I am writing to you today as a teacher, a scholar, a community volunteer and activist, and very proudly, a philanthropist. Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., I often heard my parents say that doing for others is just the rent we must pay for living on this earth, and the more fortunate you are, the higher the rent. Giving to others through our time, talents and treasures is a responsibility each of us must take on.
Last February the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta bestowed upon me an extraordinary honor. The board of directors voted to rename the Leadership Circle for $1,000-$9,999 contributors the Johnnetta B. Cole Society. My immediate reaction was true embarrassment, and then I saw that this amazing vehicle could connect leaders from Atlanta's 13 metro counties. The 7,000 members of this society represent the solid diversity of our community, including retirees, entrepreneurs, professors and young leaders from various communities, cultures and organizations.
In 1995 the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta distributed 200,000 surveys across our city and surrounding counties to find out what issues folks are most concerned about. More than 34,000 citizens, teachers, students, business people, parents and leaders responded as if with one voice. They felt United Way should focus on areas that help reduce crime and violence, thus leading to four outcome areas: strengthening families, increasing self-sufficiency, nurturing children and youth, and encouraging citizen involvement.
To carry out the agenda called for by Atlantans in the United Way survey would of course require that we continue the tradition of annual fund-raising campaigns for United Way. Should you give to the United Way? That is indeed a good question. If you're like me, you receive fund-raising letters or phone calls from nonprofit organizations every week. So what makes United Way different? It is a different kind of organization, and I want to share with you some of the ways in which that is the case.
Importantly, overhead expenses at United Way are less than 10 percent, so more than 90 cents on the dollar goes to programs helping those in need. Also, this is the one opportunity to join citizens from the 13 metro counties in a collective effort to give money where it is needed most. Volunteers serve on allocation committees and make the final decisions on where the funds, all of which stay here locally, need to go to make the greatest impact. And finally, giving to United Way through Emory's payroll deduction campaign provides you with a virtually effortless avenue to contribute.
We now know digging in your pockets and pulling out your wallet does not solve all of our community's problems. We need people and we need their time. I encourage you to look around your neighborhood and local city and ask yourself the question, "What can I do to build a stronger, safer community?" Perhaps you could get to know the next-door neighbor you've never met, spend a couple of hours a week mentoring a child or coordinate a crime watch on your street. I challenge you to think of which issues you are most passionate about, and find a way to give of your time--even an hour a week--to contribute to a process of community building.
Personally, I am hooked on 11-year-old Maranda. She has a wonderfully bright and active mind and a smile that could melt an iceberg. Like every child, she deserves opportunities to develop all of her marvelous potential.
Maranda and I formed our friendship through Big Brothers/Big Sisters, a United Way-funded agency. From creating a science project that we can work on together, to pool parties, to just "hanging out together," we have created a precious yet powerful bond that is unbreakable. Ultimately, I want to see Maranda happy and healthy, and if playing the role of "Big Sister" can put her one step closer to this dream, then I have made a positive mark in this world.
For an assortment of volunteer opportunities, you can dial 2-1-1, the nation's first three-digit phone number dedicated to community life. We all know 9-1-1 connects us to emergency assistance, and 4-1-1 connects us to general telephone information. So what number would you call if you wanted to donate an old sofa? What number would you call if you needed home care for an elderly parent? For both of these questions, just dial 2-1-1. If you need help, if you want to offer help or if you have items to donate, call United Way's 2-1-1.
The best response I have to the long list of social ills is to put into effect the "Noah principle." That is, stop looking for credit for predicting the rain; it's time to start building an ark! Metaphorically, United Way says if you will grab a hammer, I'll grab some nails--there is work to be done.
I thank you in advance for giving to United Way and for helping in the complex but doable task of building stronger, safer communities for all of us.
Johnnetta Cole is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Womens Studies and African American Studies and president emerita of Spelman College. Emory's United Way campaign begins this month.