Michael Chatman got into the business of helping people because of pie. Not any old pie—sweet potato pie home-baked by his grandmother. Explains the president of Cape Coral Community Foundation’s (CCCF) Global Center for Generosity, “She was constantly feeding the hungry as her way of being a blessing. This included Sweet Potato Pie Day, when people from the neighborhood would smell what she had cooking and line up by the back door of her house. She would put slices on paper plates; I would pass them out. This was my entrée into philanthropy.”
That an elderly woman from Georgia, with no formal education and little money, could serve as a valuable member of her community was a powerful realization for Chatman. It lies at the root of his philosophy today: Anyone can be a philanthropist. If his grandmother could do it, so could he.
Participating in youth outreach programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters as a young man growing up in Miami helped bring Chatman’s future into focus. “These organizations would have speakers come in who would fire us up,” he says. “They would tell us there was so much more to life than what we were living. They opened us up to the realm of possibilities for what we could do in adulthood.” Soon after he graduated from college, Chatman sent a promotional brochure to every secondary school principal in Florida to let them know he was available to speak at public assemblies. “Then, the phone just started ringing.”
His skills as a motivational speaker, partly on the importance of making responsible choices, brought the Anheuser-Busch Foundation to his doorstep; they sponsored him, and eventually hired him as a consultant—essentially launching his professional career into philanthropy. His contacts at the foundation, as well as those he made during his time in graduate school pursuing a degree in philanthropy and development, opened his eyes to the imperative functions of grantmaking and fundraising. They also helped widen his sphere of influence and experience.
Chatman is certainly a cheerleader for corporate philanthropy spearheaded by the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet—what he calls the commercial aspect of giving— to help the communities they serve and the employees that serve them. Nevertheless, he maintains that one person, giving from the heart, is foundational to the enterprise. “Every individual has a philanthropic passion, whether it be animals or social justice,” he says.
Corporations may have a plethora of resources available to help them assess where their efforts will have the greatest impact. But anyone can make a difference, Chatman maintains, by first identifying whether they want to give in the form of time, talent or money; identifying the cause they want to devote themselves to; then finding one organization— through tools such as GuideStar and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance—that represents the values they hold dear.
Ultimately, says Chatman, what he learned in college and from his many years in the workplace is important. “But those lessons will never be as profound as the ones I learned from Grandma.”