Growing into Philanthropy

In General

How One Program Associate Found Her True Calling

I always knew that I wanted to grow up and do good, hopefully do well, and help others. For a long time, I assumed that the perfect combination of these three aspirations resulted in a career in medicine. I never felt any kind of pressure to become a doctor, but I carefully observed that when people were ill, underwent health complications, or even needed to be prescribed the right medicine for a cold, the doctor was the one who solved all problems. However, it wasn’t until high school that I realized that philanthropy, not medicine, would be my path for helping others.

I firmly believe that philanthropy becomes embedded into your lifestyle when you see someone else do it. As a child, I watched my parents help friends and strangers alike in so many ways, and I learned early on in life what it meant to do the right thing. I always thought philanthropy meant giving money, but experience soon taught me that it equates to time, talent and treasure, in equal measure.

I joined the Youth Advisory Committee of the Southfield Community Foundation as a freshman in high school after observing my older sister participate in such a powerful group. As a thirteen-year-old, I was sitting at a table of peers from across the community, spending several hours each week deliberating on which community organizations would receive our support.

Each year, we not only granted up to $25,000 to these youth-led and youth-serving organizations, we also volunteered our time raising awareness about important issues, partnering with the city on events, and working to build a framework of diversity and inclusion throughout the community. My experience in YAC encouraged me to think critically about the needs of my community and helped reinforce the value of service to others. It truly changed my life.

While a student at the University of Michigan, I remained involved in the youth philanthropy movement. I served on a statewide youth governing board, worked as the Mawby Intern at the Council of Michigan Foundations planning the annual summer conference of more than 250 youth philanthropists and adult advisors, and worked with CMF on several other committees and initiatives.

After graduation I earned a Master of Social Work degree in Social Policy & Evaluation. I had always been interested in the systems and institutions that seem to govern society, and I felt that approaching social issues from a lens of policy and evaluation could help me make the most impact. I then returned to the Council of Michigan Foundations as a public policy fellow, thus beginning my first official full-time job in philanthropy — although I had already spent half my life in the sector as a volunteer and student!

Twelve years after my first YAC experience, I’m embarking on a new position at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. I feel fortunate that my volunteer and educational experiences exposed me to – and prepared me for – a career and a field that feels like a perfect match. One month in, I’m already convinced that this is where I am meant to be. I am inspired by the possibilities at the Community Foundation and I look forward to giving my best to an organization that works hard to benefit the same communities in which I grew up, studied and spent my entire life.

As a new program staff member, I am already impressed by how much research and hard work goes into intentional and strategic community grantmaking. I know the learning is just beginning and I look forward to sharing some of my thoughts, lessons and challenges in this blog. Wish me luck.


Surabhi Pandit