No Dollar Signs This Time
Sometimes what’s going on in the world or in my work brings a line of poetry repeatedly to mind, but just as often it’s a single word. Lately the one I keep turning over is “philanthropy.”
It’s not a word I have ever loved or identified with. A lifetime of cultural references associated it with financially wealthy people who believed they knew best how to solve other people’s problems. Since I did not believe myself to be such a person, I had always felt more kinship with people who offered a couch when someone said they needed a couch.
So I was surprised to discover that dictionary definitions of philanthropy are so inclusive and beautiful: “love of humankind”; “the desire to promote the welfare of others”; “generous donation of money to good causes”; “work of practical beneficence.” What had happened? Somewhere along the line, this big, lovely word had shriveled to describing the humanitarian impulses of less than 1% of the world’s population. When did the rich become the only people with a “desire to promote the welfare of others”? Which is a more “generous donation of money to good causes” — 100 dollars from someone who earns 50,000 a year, or 100,000 from someone with 50 million in the bank? How did the only “work of practical beneficence” worth acknowledging become writing checks?
Language experts call this kind of change in the meaning of a word semantic narrowing. Apparently once upon a time “girl” meant any young person, “deer” meant any animal, and “art” meant any skill. But none of these narrowed words disappoint me. They didn’t come to signify something diminished, just something more specific, and specificity is often more beautiful. The problem is that half the beauty of the original meaning of “philanthropy” was in its breadth. It’s as if we had taken the word “love” and reduced it to mean only familial love, or only romantic love, cutting out the love we feel for friends, or food, or sunsets, or strangers.
Even by the traditional yardstick — money — contributions to the welfare of others by financially wealthy people don’t merit disproportionate attention. To use the United States as an example, the total donated to U.S. charities in 2020 was 471 billion. Of this, nearly a third was given in increments under 5,000 dollars. In addition to these gifts few people picture when they think of philanthropy, there was 68 billion in financial support to family members in other countries (hard to track and likely way underreported), tens of billions in crowdfunding, nearly 200 billion in volunteer labor at non-profits, and 670 billion in wages for the paid employees who deliver those non-profit services. That’s over a trillion dollars in “donation of money to good causes” and “work of practical beneficence.” That trillion far exceeds contributions by the tiny segment of the population still being acknowledged and colloquially called “philanthropists.”
And that trillion is only a fraction of the value pumped into the generosity economy by the other 99%.
What’s getting left out?
The biggest omission is probably informal person-to-person giving. In a 2020 survey about generous behavior, over 70% of Americans reported giving both labor and money to people they know, and half reported doing the same for strangers. This represents billions of dollars no one seems to be counting.
What else? Voice. Millions of people participated in racial justice demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd last year. Millions more use their voices spontaneously in moments of discrimination in an office or at school. To my knowledge, no one is quantifying the value of organized and informal humanitarian speech and demonstration either.
The multiplier effect on the social and economic value of both of these forms of giving is gigantic. Generosity engages the same pleasure centers in the brain as sex, food, and receiving gifts, and it improves our health and long-term happiness as well. Just as spending in a store triggers a long chain of spending outside the store (gas for customers, lunch at the mall, supplies for the food court), the kindness in one unexpected hour of free snow-shoveling for a sick neighbor may trigger a domino effect of gratitude- and gratification-inspired kindnesses that could go on for years. Seeing someone speak up on your behalf is just as likely to inspire you to act on behalf of others, especially if that speech helps secure rights that enable you to do it.
I have seen economists focus on the costs of change-making efforts (reduction in property values or decreased business activity from protests, for example), but the immediate and knock-on benefits of humanitarian speech and compassionate action rarely get mentioned. While many of the returns — confidence, insight, and empathy, for example — are difficult to measure, many others — such as improved health outcomes — are not. Maybe someday someone will shine a quantitative spotlight on some of these, or find new ways of capturing their impact. In the 1970’s an economist named Marilyn Waring traveled around the world studying a form of labor that economists weren’t even acknowledging as an omission in their calculations, and concluded that if you hired workers at the market rate to do all the unpaid work women do, it would be the biggest sector of the global economy.
The historical omission of so many forms of generous action from our economic calculations of philanthropic value may be understandable. But their exclusion from a durable cultural concept of collective humanitarian contribution is baffling to me. I suspect our very compulsion to count and categorize and rate things is part of the problem. We tend to give more focus to things we can tally, and to rank everything else. Why does one form of compassionate action, one group of beneficiaries, one group of givers have to be more important than the others? Financially valuable versus socially valuable. Generosity to strangers versus generosity to friends and family. An employee at a non-profit takes leave from that care work to care for a dying parent. A traveler cut off from her usual volunteer work on a month overseas helps an isolated elderly neighbor get a cell phone she can use to talk to her kids. A volunteer isolated by the pandemic makes sandwiches and drives them to a road newly lined with tents and RVs in his town.
This is all philanthropy.
And so is the effort of every team member — staff or consultant, professional advisor or grassroots field worker, formally contracted or informally polled, paid or unpaid, long-term or short-term, full-time or part-time or one-time — in the big, non-traditional network of people generously helping me with my giving.
And so is the effort of all the employees and volunteers at every one of the non-profits we give to.
And so is donating your old furniture to a local shelter, or speaking up for a bullied classmate, or shoveling your sick neighbor’s driveway, or staying after the school dance to help stack chairs.
How much or how little money changes hands doesn’t make it philanthropy. Intention and effort make it philanthropy. If we acknowledge what it all has in common, there will be more of it. That’s why I keep referring to what I’m doing as “giving”, a word still being used to describe what humans have been doing with their time, focus, food, cash, and trust to lift each other up for thousands of years. It’s also why I’m not including here any amounts of money I’ve donated since my prior posts. I want to let each of these incredible teams speak for themselves first if they choose to, with the hope that when they do, media focuses on their contributions instead of mine.
In the meantime, I hope any attention from this writing falls on what I have in common with every person who ever acted on an impulse to help someone. Two years ago I wrote a letter about the safe full of resources we all have to draw from, including the beliefs and experiences that shape how each of us chooses to give. I wanted to give away more money, at a faster rate, to serve a wider diversity of under-supported causes and people, with greater effectiveness than I have the perspective and capacity to give alone. For me, this meant trusting the effort and perspective of a diverse team of staff and advisors, who in turn trust the effort and perspective of field experts, funders, and non-profit practitioners drawing on decades of experiences of their own. Together we trust the track records of impact and on-the-ground insights of hundreds of carefully selected teams working from within communities, offering them all the money up front and then stepping out of their way, encouraging them to spend it however they choose. I understand that this approach, and probably any approach, will mean having given to organizations that might make choices I wouldn’t make myself, but that’s the point. I believe the gifts will do more good if others are free from my ideas about what they should do. And this trust — another resource it’s difficult to measure — is the aspect of gifts that many have said they value most.
This approach to philanthropy is not the only way. It’s just the one my resources and opportunities inspired in me.
If you think you know how much impact might flow from acting on any of your own impulses to give, you are almost certainly wrong. Whose generosity did I think of when I made every one of the hundreds of gifts I’ve given so far? It was the local dentist who offered me free dental work when he saw me securing a broken tooth with denture glue in college. It was the college roommate who found me crying, and acted on her urge to loan me a thousand dollars to keep me from having to drop out sophomore year. And after she saw the difference she made in my life, what was she inspired to do, twenty years later? Start a company that offers loans to low-income students without a co-signer. And how quickly did I jump at the opportunity to support her dream of supporting students like she once supported me? And to whom will each of the thousands of students thriving on those gratitude-powered student loans go on to give? None of us has any idea.
Each unique expression of generosity will have value far beyond what we can imagine or live to see.