Philanthropy — It's Not Just for the Gateses

With a broadened philosophy of giving, anyone can be a philanthropist.

What does a philanthropist wear? An expensive dress and pearls? Or a comfortable sweatshirt? Where does one meet a philanthropist? In a high-rise corner suite? Or in a quiet office in an old brick building? 

At St. Catherine University, where an ethic of giving is bred in the soul, philanthropists come in all shapes and sizes. Here, giving is about much more than writing a check: it's about how professors teach, how staff support, how graduates work. 

The St. Kate's philosophy of giving is about giving back, something that anyone — no matter their background or financial circumstance — can do. To illustrate this point, we asked two campus experts to explain their philosophies of giving. Their responses shatter stereotypes about who can make a difference — and about how that difference can be made.

Sister Jean Wincek & Professor Jeff Johnson.

Sister Jean Wincek '62 and associate professor Jeff Johnson not only shared their ideas on giving with us, they shared gifts with each other in the form of a book exchange.

Jean Wincek, CSJ, '62: Gifts Of The Heart

Sister Jean Wincek comes from a long line of givers. She's not descended from the Rockefellers or the Carnegies, but her adopted family – the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet – have been philanthropists since the 1650s, when they first came together to help women in crisis. "The first Sisters of St. Joseph were women who saw France falling apart," Sr. Jean explains. "They saw the desperation of women and others in their society, and they said to one another, 'We've got to do something about this.'"

Sr. Jean, who recently just celebrated 60 years as a CSJ, understands the giving philosophy of this strong group of women who went on to found St. Catherine University better than almost anyone. Since joining the Sisters after graduating high school (she was educated by CSJs from kindergarten through 12th grade) and learning her education degree from the College of St. Catherine, she began a long career as a teacher and a school administrator, dedicating her professional life to serving children and families. From 2009-2017, she was discerned for a leadership position in the St. Paul Province. And as a 27-year member of the University's Board of Trustees, she committed her time and enviable energy to giving back to her alma mater. After a yearlong "retirement," she's now serving on two congregational committees and deciding on her next professional adventure.

From Sr. Jean's perspective, giving and service are intertwined. Though she has no financial resources of her own to give to charity, her life and career have been their own form of philanthropy. Giving, in Sr. Jean's philosophy, is about serving the community, about loving God and neighbor without distinction and extending that belief into everyday life.

"Giving really comes from a sense of generosity that comes out of the heart," Sr. Jean says. "Giving is an expression of one's deep beliefs, and where are our deep beliefs rooted? Back in the University."

And a person doesn't have to be a CSJ to embody the Sisters' giving philosophy. Sr. Jean says she sees this approach to life in the people who live, work and learn at St. Kate's. In fact, many of our graduates have this same mindset. They give to St. Kate's because it prepares tomorrow's healers and advocates for a better world.

Sr. Jean Wincek's book pick


To illustrate her point, Sr. Jean tells the story of a fellow Sister who had an extended hospital stay. When nursing staff came into her room, the Sister would ask, "Where did you get your training?" Many said their degrees were from St. Kate's.

The Katies who came to her room, this Sister recalled, brought a distinct attitude of giving and care to their work. "She noticed a qualitative difference," Sr. Jean says. "They were compassionate and extended that compassion and care to the world. That is a gift that St. Catherine gives: graduates—female and male—who go out into the world and treat people with compassion and care."

Centuries ago, the CSJs gave by teaching poor women to make and sell lace. Over the years, the Sisters' philanthropy grew to meet the needs of the time. This flexible approach to giving has been a hallmark of the CSJs, Sr. Jean says, and what has kept their mission strong and their members inspired. In St. Paul, for more than a century, that mission and philanthropy has been tied to the education of women.

For the CSJs, Sr. Jean explains, "Giving is an expression of our analysis of what society needs. So if, for instance, we really believe that our society needs women who are leaders who act with integrity, who have a mind toward transforming the world, that becomes one of the beliefs out of which we would give."

If work is a form of philanthropy, it makes sense to focus on the University and its graduates, Sr. Jean says. They are one of the Sisters' greatest gifts to the world.

"Just look at our graduates, who they are," Sr. Jean says, confidently. "Look at the judges, the people in political office, the leaders. Look at the people who work in all phases of healthcare. They are all giving of their time and their skills, and the world is a much better place because of them."

Jeff Johnson: The Most for the Neediest

It's a classic tactic of philanthropy professors: Present students with a moral puzzle, then ask them to debate its pros and cons.

So it comes as no surprise when Jeff Johnson, St. Catherine University associate professor of philosophy and department chair, asks students in his ethics course to ponder a particular scenario, posed by philosopher Peter Singer in his 2009 book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

"What if you were walking by Dew Drop Pond," Johnson posits, "and you saw a kid splashing in the water and drowning?"

Johnson says that just about every person, his students included, is inclined to say, "even if it means that we'll ruin our fancy shoes or lose our cell phone, we'd rush in and help the kid." If a person didn't act to save a drowning child, Johnson says, most would judge them lacking in moral character: "How could we live with ourselves if we didn't help?"

But it gets trickier. Johnson then explains to his class Singer's argument that since most people believe they have a moral obligation to help a drowning child, they should feel that same moral obligation to save the lives of disadvantaged people around the world through charitable giving.

"We find ourselves in a situation today where people in the developing world are dying from very easily treatable conditions," Johnson says, "and it's as easily within our reach to help them as it would be for us to wade into a shallow pond and save a drowning child."

In the developing world, saving the life of a poor child often costs very little, he explains. A mosquito net, which can save a child from mosquito-borne malaria, or a worm pill, which can keep a child healthy and able to attend school costs just dollars or pennies. People privileged with a college education, Singer argues, have a moral obligation to donate some portion of their income to charities that use cost-effective practices designed to help the most people at once.

This idea is known as effective altruism, and Johnson, who has committed himself personally to this practice, uses it as a way to get his students thinking about what it means to give, and what are one's moral obligations regarding charity.

Professor Jeff Johnson's book pick

Johnson helps his students imagine what it would take to extend Singer's argument to their argument to their everyday lives. Some counter that they are students, without extra financial resources to give to charity. Johnson's response? He asks his students to keep a spending diary, where they track their daily spending habits over a set period of time.

"In the spending diary, I ask them to carefully distinguish between the things they purchased that they needed, and those that they wanted," Johnson explains.

At the end of the study, almost without exception, Johnson says, students have the same reaction: "They'll report, 'I didn't have any idea how much I spent on Junk I don't really need.' It takes very little to make a huge difference in other people's lives, and this exercise empowers students by helping them see they too may have extra resources to give charitably."


Discussions like this one are in line with the St. Catherine philosophy and mission—that gifts take many forms, and everyone has something they can give to others. 

Johnson, who's been at the University for more than a decade, says that's one of the things he loves about the institution—the entire community is challenged to think about their role int eh world and what they can do to help improve life for everyone who inhabits it.

"It makes the concept of giving feel accessible to just about anyone," he says. Expanding the definition of philanthropy somehow feels empowering—and what can be more Katie than that?

"We all can help," Johnson says. "We all should. How we do it is up to us."