The Unexpected Adventures of a Philanthropy Book Club’s Founder

The American College of Financial Services
July 26, 2021

Bay Area wealth advisor Amanda Weitman, CAP®, is passionate about staying current with the best thinking about philanthropy. Having tried to read the best new books about philanthropy solo, she realized that these were appearing faster than she could cover them alone. She also recognized the need to make wealth advisors feel more comfortable holding conversations about philanthropy with their clients. But she never expected where that desire to help others do better would lead—especially not to San Quentin, one of the highest-security prisons in the country.

In 2016, Amanda asked her peers at Wells Fargo Private Bank if they’d like to start a philanthropy book club. Immediately, 20 fellow advisors agreed to read a book a month together for 11 months. As word about the book club spread, friends of members asked to join, and then friends of friends, including from beyond Wells Fargo. The 60 current members include CPAs, attorneys, members of private foundations, and nonprofit professionals.

Choosing books that will appeal to this diverse membership—that will provide cohesion and inspiration—is no easy task. Initially, Amanda chose the books herself, balancing instructive works (like Give Smart by Joel Lawrence Fleishman and Thomas J. Tierney) with inspirational, real-life stories (like The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz). As the group grew larger, she solicited suggestions from club members, with books chosen by votes from their recommendations. 

The book club also provides an excellent opportunity for building trust and networking with professionals outside one’s own field. The club’s cross-disciplinary approach enables its members to establish meaningful connections rooted in philanthropy with professionals they might not otherwise have met, or met only superficially, and makes interdisciplinary discussions about philanthropy not merely comfortable, but enjoyable.

 

The Book Club Turned Philanthropic Organization

 

Although she values book-learning about philanthropy, Amanda also values experiential learning. Most members had not, for example, been a nonprofit leader responsible for working with a board to raise funds. “I wanted our book club members to get that philanthropy-induced panic in the pits of their stomach,” she said. “So I threw out a suggestion that the club should actually raise money for something. We’d just finished reading Adam Braun’s The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change [the best-selling account of the founding of Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit that builds grammar schools in developing countries]. And so I said, ‘I think we should raise $30,000 and build a school for Pencils of Promise.’” 

Amanda anticipated some pushback: book club members were, after all, typically working long hours and preoccupied with their own lives. But the entire club enthusiastically agreed. They created a fundraising page and raised over $30,000 in about six months. Today, somewhere in Ghana, stands a school bearing a plaque that identifies it as a gift from the Wells Fargo Book Club.

The club then began looking for another project to continue the real-world application of their knowledge of philanthropy, identifying their top three priorities as youth development, education, and hunger. Even before choosing a new charity, they began raising money by contributing dollars-per-minute for “spin” riding. While pedaling away, a friend spinning next to Amanda told her about Project Avary, a nonprofit that provides a 10-year mentorship program and summer camp for children whose parents are incarcerated. This seemed like a perfect fit to Amanda, and the club agreed. Soon, Amanda and the other club members were spin-riding for inmates’ children.

Partway through that ride, however, the instructor of the class took Amanda aside and asked if she could share something with her: “My mom was one of those little kids waiting outside of the prison to go in and see her dad. My grandfather was in San Quentin.” It was a sign of things to come. A few weeks later, the same instructor asked Amanda for help with an unusual fundraising project: San Quentin inmates wanted to raise money for Project Avary by holding a walk-a-thon behind bars, and they needed someone to help on the outside. Amanda agreed, and the dual event was such a great success the walkathon was held again the following year. Amanda was especially impressed by the prisoners’ efforts: most earn only 13 to 90 cents per hour, yet they raised $800: a substantial sacrifice of the small luxuries that make their lives more bearable.

As plans for a third walkathon were discussed, Amanda contacted the leadership of Project Avary. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could go in and talk with the group of men who are putting on the walkathon?’” she recalls. “‘We could teach them about values and philanthropy and fundraising, so that they could do even better at raising money.’” With Project Avary’s help, Amanda obtained permission to conduct a philanthropy workshop inside San Quentin itself.

 

The Philanthropists on the Inside

 

Built in 1852, San Quentin is a high-security facility, with multiple checkpoints before one emerges into an exercise yard where armed guards keep constant watch from a runway above. The workshop was housed in the prison’s educational center, with Amanda sitting at a large table, around which sat men of all ages, each with more distinctive tattoos than the last. Amanda had decided to open this workshop using an exercise she’d found helpful with her wealth advising clients. She divided the men into groups of four and played a card game designed to help people identify their core values and test them against others’ perceptions of them. Like her clients, the prisoners enjoyed the game.

When that session ended, Amanda remembers one participant told her, “‘I never even thought I HAD core values.’” Another observed that he’d never realized how much he valued compassion, which he could now use to refine his approach to fundraising. “‘We go from cell to cell asking for money for the walkathon,’” the man said. “‘Instead of coercing people, I can now use compassion, because I know it's one of my core values.’”

In the next session, Amanda asked the inmates what it meant to be a “philanthropist.” They offered the usual answer: “‘They’re people who give lots of money.’” Amanda helped the men extend that definition beyond the giving of treasure to include gifts of time and of talent. One point especially hit home with the men. “Look,” she said, “you’re putting on a walkathon to raise money for charity, giving your time to do this. You put together a public service announcement to get people involved. So you’ve given your money, you’ve spent time collecting donations, and you used your talent to market the event. You know what that makes you?”

There was silence.

“You’re philanthropists.” 

Of the many terms these men had heard applied to them, “philanthropist” was a new one. No one had ever accused them of being generous and altruistic before. It was, Amanda observes, a moment of redefinition. As they were passing back to their cells, one man came up to Amanda, smiling and proud. “‘I’m putting up a sign in my cell,” she remembers him saying. “‘It will say I AM A PHILANTHROPIST.’”

Later, another workshop participant—a prisoner who was editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News—asked Amanda to repeat the program with the newspaper staff. Produced and run entirely by incarcerated men, the San Quentin News covers restorative justice and other issues and is, in many ways, a typical community newspaper. Amanda obtained permission from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University to help the paper with their fundraising efforts as the basis for the internship required for her Masters Degree in Philanthropy, which she was awarded in December 2020. She continues to volunteer with the San Quentin News to this day.

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