The Faces of Young Philanthropy: Leaders in a New World

Seth Block, Amit Banerjee and Bora Laci hosting a Book Drive in Dallas
Photo credit: Jack Helms/Dallas Doing Good

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We caught up with three young philanthropists and asked them why community service is an integral part of their lives. Here’s who they are and what they had to say:

Amit Banerjee is a Senior at SMU, where he is majoring in Electrical Engineering. He currently serves as the CEO of Philanthropy Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and inspiring philanthropy in youth. He was taught at a young age that you don’t have to be rich or old to be a philanthropist; you just have to care. He’s a proud Dallas native who loves making his city better through volunteerism and civic engagement, participating in programs like Communities Foundation of Texas’ Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas Emerging Leaders Society, and more!

Bora Laci works as the Assistant Director of Programs at the SMU Tower Center. She graduated with a B.A. from SMU in 2013 and earned her M.B.A. from SMU’s Cox School of Business in 2019. She currently serves on the Board of Crayon Club Scottish Rite Hospital, Union Coffee, Dallas After School Young Professionals, SMU Young Alumni Board, Steering Committee for Emerging Leaders at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and Think Ahead Group Center for BrianHealth.

Seth Block works as a Legal Assistant for the aviation law firm Slack Davis Sanger LLP. He is a member of the 2019-2020 Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy cohort at Communities Foundations of Texas, a member of the 2020-2021 Dana Juett Residency at Social Venture Partners Dallas, member of The Friends of the Global Shapers, and is on the Steering Committee for Emerging Leaders at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas

What got you started in the world of philanthropy?

Amit: Growing up in my house, philanthropy was a given – we always talked about respecting others, being kind to other people, actively volunteering, and supporting causes that you cared about. So as I find organizations that are doing good for the community, I want to attach myself to them and be part of their mission. So whatever form that takes – whether it’s a volunteering role, a fundraising role, or a leadership position, I want to help. That’s kind of been my evolution through philanthropy. 

Bora: My journey began while in college at SMU, where I started getting more involved in the community. As an MBA student, I served on the board of SMU Young Alumni, and that’s when I realized how important community is and how much of an impact I could make. I began attending Dallas Regional Chamber events, reaching out to local nonprofits, and then Amit and I began serving on the board of Union Coffee. I’m a huge education advocate, particularly early childhood education, and have become more involved with an organization called Mi Escuelita. 

I’m a really huge education advocate – particularly early childhood education. Being an immigrant I also understand how education is really the equalizer in this country. I was also a mentor for high school students and realized that many of them do not understand the value of education beyond just a high school diploma.

Seth: I’ve not been doing this nearly as long as either of these guys has. The short version of my story is that I came to a place in my life where I just wasn’t very happy. While doing some inner work and self-reflection, I realized that I hadn’t really done much in the way of community service. I had done a few one-offs, like when you had to go volunteer to feed the homeless for a class. I did actually enjoy serving, but it wasn’t something that I chose to do all the time. I realized that I wanted to become more engaged in the community, so I reached out to Amit. We were on a trip to Austin, sitting in a hotel lobby, and I just said to him, “Hey man, I want to start doing more in the community…so wherever you feel comfortable…plug me in.” Amit ran with it, and with his help, I was able to get into the Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy Program. I have since been able to get involved in several organizations on my own.

Philanthropy has been defined as the giving of “time, talent and treasure” for the greater good. I believe that your generation would also add “voice.” How do you see that your generation is embracing philanthropy differently than the previous generations, and why is that important?

Bora: I think being a woman as well as an immigrant gives me a different perspective on that. Going to SMU, people just saw my skin color and assumed a lot of things about me. They are often shocked to find out I’m an immigrant. I’m really proud of my nationality and feel like there is more diversity now in philanthropy and people from all backgrounds are making a difference. It’s so important to have a voice. There seem to be more people – especially younger ones – who are not afraid to speak out. I have also noticed women getting more involved in areas that have historically been all male. And even though my passion and focus are education, I want to branch out and gain an understanding of other important issues as well. 

Amit: I think it’s a threefold thing. First – our generation has expanded the idea of what philanthropy is all about. Secondly – representation by various and diverse groups is growing in our generation. Thirdly – globalization has allowed us to interact with different cultures and markets and become more aware of different kinds of people. In the past, the word “philanthropy” was associated with the idea of multi-millionaires who gave away a portion of their wealth to causes they cared about. But recently we’ve gone back to the core root of the word – the love of mankind. You don’t have to be rich or old to be a philanthropist. You just have to care. We’re seeing young people serving on boards at a much younger age. Volunteers are becoming actively engaged and using their voice. Advocacy is huge, and with social media, it’s easy to organize and share your message. People are more willing to address the need for change and aren’t afraid to do something about it. 

Seth: I struggled at first with putting my advocacy on social media because I felt like I was drawing attention to myself and taking away from what really mattered. But every so often I would start throwing it out there to say, “This is how I served today with a nonprofit.” What was wild was that people began to PM me and ask me to let them know when I was going again so they could join me. I realized that posting about it could inspire other people to volunteer. Now a big part of my social media presence is just that because it does have a trickle effect. The other day I was trying to get school supplies for some kids and posted it on social media. Someone who follows me in Austin saw it and rallied his friends and family behind it. They sent me $140 and I cleaned out the school supply section of Target. The internet has brought people together and gotten rid of the borders that used to divide us.

You organized a volunteer effort during the pandemic that has had a widespread impact. Tell me more about that.

Seth: We decided to collaborate for a Book Drive, and partnered with local businesses all around Dallas. Our hope was to both help some great local nonprofits who needed books for kids and drive people to local businesses who were hurting as well. The businesses served as host drop-off sites, and also gave donors a discount on their order that day as a way of saying thank you.  We had an Amazon wish list as well. We eventually got partnered with a national book club that has 20 chapters and 500 members nationwide. That was extremely lucky because they bought a ton of books on our Amazon wish list and mailed them to us. We also got support from the Communities Foundation of Texas. Their marketing team just crushed it for us.

You mentioned that technology played a key role in your book drive. How do you see technology and philanthropy working together in ways that promote social good?

Amit: I love finding the intersection with technology and philanthropy. My background is in technology – I’m an electrical engineer – so for me, the question is always, “How do I combine that background with philanthropy? I enjoy working with technology companies to help them establish a philanthropic presence – whether that’s through corporate social responsibility or with the technology they develop. For example, Lockheed Martin is known for its missile systems defense systems and planes, but they actually have an entire energy and energy storage division and are making great strides in addressing the climate crisis. So it’s interesting, when companies, especially large corporations, choose to incorporate philanthropy into their business model. And then on the flip side of all this is when nonprofits, charities and foundations use technology to enhance the work they do. These platforms allow them to really take advantage of data, and can even be valuable for organizations like political campaigns. And whether you’re reaching out to potential voters, volunteers or potential donors, you use similar types of data to identify prospects and help your organization accomplish its goals. 

Seth: With our book drive, we didn’t pay for any marketing. We got on the news because of an Instagram post. I’ve had some experience using technology for political campaigns, and it’s a game-changer. Technology gives the ability to micro-target, so you’re not just out knocking on random doors. The same thing applies to nonprofits. Technology has changed the rate at which you can send out information, get in touch with volunteers, and really manage them effectively.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Bora: My advice to people would be to just take action. We are just three young people who decided we wanted to do something to make a change, and so we came together and did it. I love this quote, which I think sums it up well: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”

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