Giving to Ourselves and Others

Originally Published in Fair Value

The face looking at me from the newspaper is perhaps six years old. It’s a young boy in a makeshift tent, mud on his cheeks, hands clasped as if in prayer. The caption tells me he’s lost his home and that winter may take his life. I think it’s his eyes that move me most, speaking of a horror that no child should bear. My palms feel sticky as I pick up the phone, text HELP, and make a donation to the Syrian refugee appeal.

Fundraisers Happen Frequently

Fundraisers like these have become part of the fabric of our lives—they are in our magazines, on TV, and even on posters on the subway. So commonplace are these images that we learn to filter them out. In the newspaper I was reading, there were similar appeals for cancer research, wildlife conservation, homelessness, and victims of domestic abuse. At times, it seems there’s no end to the call on our goodwill. And that should not be surprising, for the urge to alleviate suffering is surely part of our humanity. Indeed, to have no sympathy for the pain of others is a mark of a psychopath. And yet we cannot credibly respond to every cry for help. In the United States, there are estimated to be 1.5 million registered nonprofit organizations, and in the UK, around a third of that number, with similar proliferation of social ventures across the developed world.

Nonprofit organizations as the Third Sector

This “third sector,” as it’s sometimes called, has become a significant part of our social infrastructure and, in many ways, it’s as competitive for our attention as the mainstream economy. We choose our causes, and from the natural disorder of what is effectively a market for our hearts, there emerges a growing wealth of charity in the broadest and most generous sense of that term. Or so the theory goes. The notion of charity as the desire to eliminate suffering is sometimes contrasted with a broader vision of philanthropy and the quest to find lasting solutions for the root causes of our problems. We tend to think of philanthropists as a rich few, often historical figures with a social conscience. In liberal democracies, much of their role is now given over to the state, with nonprofits filling the gaps and addressing more immediate and particular needs.

Government vs. Nonprofit: Charity Source

To my mind, the distinction is somewhat academic. All of us are aware that the problems in Syria or Somalia-or even our neighborhood-are the result of forces that ought to be fixed. But we also know that hungry bellies need feeding, and traumatized children will not survive winter in a tent. Those caught in the crosswinds of circumstance are deserving of both our immediate attention and our efforts to make a greater and longer-lasting change. And, mostly, the two approaches go hand in hand. Very few larger charities are focused only on the here and now, and yet, understandably, they will seek to leverage our more visceral responses to raise funds and build awareness-just as they will lobby the rich and famous, be they individuals, governments, or corporations, for larger donations that offer the promise (and reflected aura) of a legacy difference. But for many of us, all of this can seem somewhat removed, which is surely why so many smaller organizations still thrive in the face of what’s become a quasi-corporate competition for our sympathies. A remark often misattributed to Winston Churchill is, “We make a living by what we get, but make a life by what we give.”

Donations and Volunteering are Different 

It nonetheless contains the truth which lies behind our desire not only to donate cash, which-good though it is-can feel like conscience appeasement, but to volunteer and campaign for causes, which-although they may seem peripheral to others-are closest to our hearts. I recall a colleague complaining to me, not unkindly but in frustration, about the fundraisers at his local school. They were so inefficient, he said; hours spent baking cakes and running raffles, when frankly if everyone who cared had simply donated twenty dollars, they’d have raised twice as much in half the time. He was probably right, but of course, he missed the point of the exercise. We get our children involved in community work as much for the lessons it teaches them as the difference they can tangibly make.

Volunteering Helps a Community

Of course, the definition of community is wider now than ever. For some, it remains rooted in their neighborhood, their church, or school. For others, that sense of belonging might come from their workplace, their hobbies, or their ethnicity. This is a good thing, for the diversity of interests leads ultimately to richer lives for us all and, I would argue, a voluntary sector that better reflects our needs and concerns than any interventionist design could hope to do. This is why, wearing my corporate hat for a moment, we should resist calls for overregulation of the nonprofit sector.Instead, we should encourage involvement and giving of different sorts-awarding tax breaks and stipends to those who volunteer, for example—and promoting new models of contribution that draw on our collective efforts as well as our cash. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege to work with many gifted individuals and have seen the progress that their flair makes possible. It’s common for the leaders of many different faiths to ask their followers to gift a percentage of their income but consider the impact if all of us offered a percentage of our talents. For some, that might mean baking cakes-and it’s good that they do—but for an academic say, it could be directing a percentage of their research at social issues, or for executives like myself, advising on strategies and governance.

Volunteering Builds Community 

In the US and the UK, nonprofits are typically seen as a substitute for state funding, but there are other approaches that we can learn from. I’ve already mentioned the roles of the churches and faiths, which are prominent in many cultures. Across much of mainland Europe, there is often a more social-corporate model, with close cooperation and even contracting between the state and charities. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where high taxes and high-quality services are the norm, the emphasis is on volunteering and participation.

Modern Philanthropy

The pool of our talent is limitless, and it is here, I believe, where the potential for modern philanthropy lies. Lasting social solutions are seldom designed from above; rather, they evolve through an iterative process of progress and refinement underpinned by care for the outcome. This asks more of us than the adverts and appeals that surround us and requires leaders to step forward and encourage others to do the same. But here’s the thing: it pays us back in spades. Short of utopia, there will always be a role for larger organizations, and thank goodness they are there. But to have a wider, more caring society, we need to bridge the gap between ourselves and those in need with something more tangible than simply texting HELP.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: