The Giving Gene

Most of us practice some form of charitable giving, at varying points in our lives. Very few of us, however, truly “indulge” in the pursuit of philanthropy. Good reasons abound:

  • Perhaps the means or the opportunities are simply not there. The economy is still shaky and, despite all the media stories celebrating declines in unemployment, we all know so many friends and family members who are desperately hoping for a job soon. Without a regular source of income, the idea of charitable giving is a difficult one to entertain.
  • Perhaps your order of priorities is consciously self-centered: your parents ingrained in you the belief that a good citizen has a social responsibility to not be a burden on the State. Welfare checks and unemployment benefits are marks of shame and failure to some, and financial freedom is the first priority, before one may explore the options for giving back.
  • Perhaps you simply believe in maximizing the value of your contributions: you did something to earn your money, and you want to be sure that you get the best ROI (or ROC – Return On Contribution – in this case). You’re not expecting VIP tickets to the Superbowl, but you want a clear indication that your contribution has been well spent. Something more concrete than a set of sticky address labels or a tote bag.

It is not difficult to find individuals whose actions manage to convincingly support one or more of the above positions. After years of hard-working wealth accumulation, the likes of Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, Charles Feeney, and Paul Allen have gained a new perspective on the world we all share, and finally see clearly what so few of us feel empowered to acknowledge and act upon: our individual lifestyles are affected, in one way or the other, by the circumstances of ALL those who breathe the same air we breathe, and drink the same water we drink. Ignoring or avoiding the plight or pain of others, simply because they are strangers, not only fails to elevate their circumstances, but also lowers our own standard of living, however imperceptibly sometimes. The mega rich sometimes have within them, or in their partners or spouses, the personality characteristics to ignite this late-blooming awareness, such that it springboards a philanthropic activism most of us would love to pursue, if only we were that well-off. Then again, many arguments that justify delayed philanthropy are just as easily undermined: there are those who have had access to extensive financial resources from an early age, and have subsequently dedicated their lives – and a measure of those resources – in service to society. We cannot all be Margaret Cargills or Juliette Gordon Lows, though. What are the rest of us to do – those without inherited millions, early stock options, trust funds, or family names that guarantee stock holdings beyond the wildest imaginings of the other 99%? Is it really advisable to give only when one has the discretion to do so, without the potential for negatively impacting one’s own circumstances? Is there a rationale for giving when one’s contribution may well pose a burden on one’s own circumstances? How much is enough? How much is too much?

Margaret Cargill and Juliette Gordon Low

The Power of a Little

There are literally hundreds of billions of dollars out there, waiting to be donated or, as I prefer to say, “activated”: small collections of cash,  the loss of which would have little impact on their donors, but the aggregate of which would have massive impact on beneficiaries. That $10 bill in your cousin’s pocket is itching to go to the right cause. Those pennies, nickels, and dimes in the jar by your kitchen door add up to $30 worth of dormant donations. Kids making pocket money would be thrilled to learn the concept of “Save/Spend/Share”, if only we might learn it first. There are three principle obstacles standing in the way of Common Folk Philanthropy, and each one is surmountable: lack of knowledge, lack of inspiration, and lack of empowerment.

As I mentioned above, many of us are hesitant to donate our hard-earned funds, when we know little about how those funds will actually be put to use. What percentage goes to fair operating expenses (core costs such as salaries, real estate, and development), and what goes to the actual programs of the recipient charity? News stories abound wherein unscrupulous “charities” hide avarice beyond anyone’s reasonable imaginings. What if your target beneficiary is not an organization, but an individual or family in your neighborhood about whom you know little, but who obviously would benefit from some community support? Perhaps you have some discretionary funds, but little to no time to explore and research potential recipients.

Let’s begin with the most straightforward of these challenges: how to evaluate the relative merits of charitable organizations. Charity Navigator is currently one of the most valuable resources for individuals and organizations seeking to make charitable donations: serving the philanthropic community for more than 10 years, the site aims to (in their own words) “…guide intelligent giving. By guiding intelligent giving, we aim to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace, in which givers and the charities they support work in tandem to overcome our nation’s and the world’s most persistent challenges”.

There are a number of resources – online and off – which one can tap in to and leverage, when researching potential beneficiaries of one’s generosity. A few examples:

  • Passionate about education and eager to help at a grass roots level? Check out Donors Choose for a healthy roll call of opportunities.
  • Want to help heal the world, but need some guidance as to which areas are in most immediate need, and which organizations might offer the best solution? Over the past ten years or so, Global Giving has helped nearly 340,000 donors contribute more than $90M dollars to small grassroots initiatives.
  • If you have a bunch of friends who share your desire to give, why not take a page out of the Book Club model, and create a “Giving Circle”, such as the Washington Women’s Foundation, the Teen Impact Fund, or the Giving Circle of Hope. The collective research and giving capabilities will empower you and your circle to maximize the impact of your donations.

Lighting the Fire

Information is crucial, as is inspiration. The latter is thankfully in ample supply. A simple web search or two will turn up hundreds of names and case studies in realistic philanthropy: individuals such as Curtis Monks, or Thomas Cannon.

Study the case of someone such as Hilda Back, and inspiration will follow:


Or perhaps Chen Shu-chu, the vegetable stall owner in Taiwan, will hit the mark for you:

These people, and many more besides, take small steps to make a big difference. These steps must sometimes be deliberate, though sometimes they happen quite “in the moment”. A few days ago, I was invited to a small fundraiser for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. The hosts couldn’t have been nicer, and took the time to tell me the story of how they were walking in honor of a friend and colleague who had recently got Cancer. The fact that one of them had committed to selling his professional artwork, with all proceeds going to the charity, inspired me to buy two pieces (see end of article). The prize I won later in the raffle was something I knew another attendee would appreciate far more than I, so I took great pleasure in auctioning it off. The charity got a quick extra bundle of cash, which was great. That I looked quite silly while driving up the bids was just a bonus for my wife and daughter, who were watching and giggling.

The opportunity presented itself for me and my family to give within our means, and to make it count. I was given the information I needed to get a clear sense of where our money was going, and the return on my contribution was not only commercially tangible in the form of the artwork I had secured, but multiplied by the happy opportunity I had received to further enlarge their coffers, at no additional cost to myself. I came away feeling I got way more than I had given. This sense of empowerment and reward is an important one in today’s new paradigm of social giving. It is why many of the beneficiaries of crowd-giving aren’t even charities. Grassroots donors do not always need a commercial return on their contribution, but some sense of reward or recognition is increasingly required. Today’s emerging philanthropists are not content with simply signing a check to the Red Cross or United Way. They want to be empowered as active participants in the process, whether at the head-end transaction moment, or at the tail-end moment when the gift goes into service. How much one gives is a completely personal decision: one person’s gauge of what they can “afford” is always markedly different from another’s.  I don’t believe it is so important to focus on how much is being given, though. The paradigm shifts when the mentality changes, and it is encouraging to see how more and more people are getting involved the act of giving, regardless of its manifestation. It may be the conventional financial contribution to a charitable organization, or perhaps a loan to help empower entrepreneurs eager to lift themselves out of poverty ( Perhaps you have a skill (app-development, web dev, marketing…) that will improve the visibility of an NPO. Maybe your interest is in improving the health and welfare of your own community…

The Changing Nature of Giving

When the line between charitable giving and investment is being blurred by ventures such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, who’s to say that supporting that local business venture is not as socially philanthropic an undertaking as donating to that far-off water well project? Both initiatives are designed to support and bolster community, albeit in quite different ways. The selling point is no longer simply the emotional appeal of the proposed beneficiary, or the 501-c3 status of the recipient organization, but rather the connective tissue that will bind the donor to that recipient. Today it needs to be more direct, more engaging, more reciprocal. Today’s grassroots donor wants their contribution to be a social undertaking. Unfortunately, many charitable organizations still fear the move in to social engagement, and are failing to take advantage of the enormous potential of the new paradigms in grass roots support. If you represent a worthy cause, charitable or not, grass roots fundraising is a powerful resource, and the social engagement platforms and channels available to you are numerous and diverse. Now is the time to act. If you are an individual, wishing to become more engaged in modest philanthropy, many of those same platforms and channels are designed to support your impulse to give, offering tools to inform, inspire, and empower you – as an active participant in your giving community, local or global. No excuses, only opportunities. This is the best time to be involved in positive impact initiatives, and you are the architect and captain of your participation.

(These are the two pieces I purchased: part of the fundraising exhibition entitled “The Wall Street Project“.)