A Conversation With Una Osili, IUPUI’s Philanthropy Expert

Photo by Tony Valainis

Why is it so important for people to donate right now, even when they may also be struggling?

We tend to think of giving as benefiting others, but the research we’ve done shows that people who are more charitable also feel more satisfied with their own lives. Philanthropy is a way of reclaiming agency amid a crisis.

What has giving been like during the pandemic?

Nationally, we’ve seen some extraordinary acts of generosity. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, gave away a billion dollars to fight COVID-19—a quarter of his net worth—this spring. And we’ve seen so many people step up on a local level, too. On the Nextdoor app, people in my neighborhood have been picking up groceries for seniors and offering rides to hospitals. At IUPUI, students have been helping with virtual tutoring for kids whose parents are essential workers. St. Richard’s Episcopal School, where my two children went to school, encouraged kids to bring in supplies to donate to a local food pantry. The scope of the pandemic is so big, but those small acts of generosity are inspiring.

What do you wish people knew about philanthropy?

That you don’t have to be a billionaire to make a difference. Yes, the financial aspect is important, but you can also lend your time and talents to volunteering for a cause. That’s something I try to emphasize to young people: In the age of social media, your testimony and your voice are increasingly valuable.

People grow up wanting to be nurses, scientists, teachers—but not so much philanthropists. How did you first get interested in the field? 

I grew up in Nigeria, and from a young age, I was given the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Generosity was something we did as a family. My mother would take my sibling and I to the local orphanage, as well as a senior citizens’ home. We would deliver toys and supplies, and at the senior citizens’ home, we were part of a small song-and-dance group that performed during the holidays.

Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to pursue philanthropy as a career?

The summer before my freshman year at Harvard University, every student received the same letter from the university president, Derek Bok, urging us to get involved and make a difference in someone’s life. I started volunteering to tutor kids in inner-city Boston twice a week and on weekends, and I worked as assistant director of the summer program during my second year. I was basically running a nonprofit, so I learned not just to deliver services, but to collaborate with communities. And that stayed with me.

Your husband, Vop Osili, is the president of the City-County Council. Where did you two meet?

I met Vop—which is a nickname that stands for “voice of the people”—when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University. We bonded over our similar backgrounds. Both of us had American mothers and Nigerian fathers, and we shared values. We were both committed to using our resources to help others.

Short term, the pandemic has created a ton of immediate need. Long term, the trend has been that fewer people are giving. What’s driving that?

Among those who are giving, the amounts have held steady, but it’s those who have stopped giving that are the issue. We can trace that back to the Great Recession. There was a complex set of factors—a decreasing affiliation with religious congregations, declining levels of trust and confidence in institutions, but also economic factors. Younger Americans were particularly hard hit during the Great Recession and had trouble finding stable jobs.

What’s the solution?

The past model of charitable giving was to write a check and let the organization figure out what to do with it, and that’s not as attractive to young people. They want to see the difference their donation is making, like hearing back from a child they sponsored. It’s about creating more fun opportunities for younger people that will reduce barriers, and making giving more accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. You can now stream a celebrity playing a video game as a fundraiser or donate to the CDC Foundation while watching a video on TikTok, for instance.

You’re the mom of a middle-schooler and a college student. How have you discussed giving with them as they have grown up?

My daughter is very passionate about helping the homeless population. So for one of her birthdays, she asked for donations to CHIP [the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention] in lieu of gifts. My son cares about the intersection of people and the environment, and during some of the recent natural disasters, we suggested that instead of asking for presents, he could ask people to donate the Red Cross. Those weren’t really fun conversations, because my kids initially couldn’t quite see giving up their birthday gifts. But they ultimately realized that, through one simple act, they could move the needle on an issue.