You Are the Future of Philanthropy

If you type the word philanthropy into Wikipedia you find it was first used by the Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, in the play Prometheus Bound and literally means ‘the caring of man’ – caring, nourishing, improving and enhancing the quality of life for other human beings.

Whatever meaning it had back in Ancient Greece, it’s become a word we now tend to associate with the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffett – incredibly wealthy men giving away their millions later in life to worthy foundations, charities and causes.

Men who tend to get libraries, concert halls and public buildings named after them.

BIG philanthropy.

It’s fairly normal to be cynical about this type of giving, and unsurprisingly we sometimes question the motives involved:

‘It’s OK for them to give a few million when they still have millions left. If they really cared they’d give more’.

‘They’ve enjoyed all their money, now they’re just worried about how history will judge them’.

Do we ever ask ourselves the same questions ?

We may not have Bill Gate’s billions, but no doubt many of us reading this have more than we really need. How would our choices about how we spend our money look from the perspective of a hungry parent in the developing world, struggling to feed and nurture their children ?

Would we also be seen to be just cynically donating a few pounds here and there in order to feel better about ourselves, while still squandering much larger sums on luxuries we don’t really need ? If we really cared would we give more ?

These aren’t questions with easy answers. We have to wrestle with and resolve them ourselves on an personal basis.

In her uplifting TED talk below, the social change activist Katherine Fulton argues that things are changing when it comes to philanthropy. That philanthropy is being democratised, influenced in large part by the networking and collectivising power of the internet.

The world might be facing more significant emerging global problems than it’s faced before, but we also have more potential to create emerging global solutions than ever before. Our ability to connect, support and give, to all kinds of people around the world offers new opportunities and incentives.

We are now able to connect far more directly with the beneficiaries of our giving. We can individually select recipients of micro-loans we might make to developing world entrepreneurs through Kiva. We can sponsor individual children, and their villages, through international child sponsorship schemes like those run by World Vision, Barnardo’s or Compassion International. We can find and choose organisations and causes we might wish to support more easily than ever through sites like Charitable Giving, Just Giving or Donors Choose, and we know far more about how money is spent by these organisations, and what effect it has than ever before.

And it’s not just about the money.

These are tough times, and many in our own societies who previously felt comfortable, are now struggling financially. Charity donations have begun to decline in recent years – but there are many ways to support charities and good causes other than sending money:

- Donate your time to a local group or campaign such as foodbanks or conservation volunteers.

- Record yourself reading a public domain book.

- Spend one hour helping someone get familiar with the internet.

- Look at Do-It, IVO, Volunteer England for more ideas.

If we are to be successful in tackling the many challenges facing the world – whether in India’s slums or down the road – we’re going to have to further refine our vision of philanthropy, and embed it more into our normal, everyday lives.

Katherine’s TED talk finishes with two pictures.

The first is a photo of her Great Grandfather and Grandfather, taken nearly a hundred years ago, who devoted much of their time, money and energy in the benefit of their local communities, and whose legacy is her admiration, fondness and inspiration.

The second is a blank picture, which she asks us to imagine is a photograph of us, viewed a hundred years in the future, perhaps by our grandchildren.

What would we wish our legacy to be ?

What is it you want to be part of creating ?

Similar articles – Saving LivesIt’s Not the Thought that Counts, Charity Does Begin at Home

Charity DOES Begin at Home

Some time ago I was talking to a friend and the conversation turned to charity, and how much we both tend to give.

“I never give to charity”, they said “I don’t believe in it”.

I was a little taken aback.

My friend is a perfectly nice and amiable person, personally generous to their friends and not especially mean spirited. I’d never really come across anyone with such a hard view of charity before, and certainly wasn’t expecting it from my friend. It turns out my friend’s not unique, I’ve encountered others with the same view since.

People offer a range of reasons for their opposition to charity: “all the money gets wasted”, “people need to learn to look after themselves”, “I don’t have enough money myself”. I actually heard someone say “well its survival of the fittest isn’t it” when asked about developing world poverty once. Others seem to have broader and deeper issues, related to some form of hoarding instinct, or a genuine lack of emotional empathy for others, such as with Doctor Spock style Alexithymia. Recent research does suggests there may be a genetic component to generosity.

The most common reason that tends to be offered though is “I’ve never really thought about it”.

When it comes to charitable giving there’s a spectrum that ranges from cheerful and generous sacrificial giving, all the way to not believing in charity at all, passing through various shades of awkward guilt and lukewarm occasional support, in between.

Why ?

And of course it’s not just giving to charity, the same question arises with anything we do more for others than ourselves. Pay more for fairtrade – why ? Make less profit with an ethical investment account – why ? Pay more for green electricity – why ?

There are as many reasons given in support of empathy and compassion as against it – that it’s in the common good and makes things better for everyone, that it’s a requirement of an ethical code, that its a religious commandment or that its all down to mirror neurons.

The truth is, of course, that to a significant extent empathy and compassion are learned, especially in early childhood. Charity in later life, it seems, really does begin in the home.

We all tend to imitate what we see and what’s modeled for us when growing-up, and several developmental psychologists (including Sue Gerhardt) have stressed the importance of  a warm loving environment and relationships for developing empathy in children.

Fortunately, if you’ve left teaching (or learning) empathy a little late, all the indications are that it can also be successfully learned later in life. Many courses and training – whether for ex-prisoners trying manage anger, doctors improving their bedside manner or (of course) for marketing, now incorporate empathy development. The economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin believes the development of increased global empathy is what will ultimately save the world.

So more hugs all round then!

Similar articles – Saving Lives, From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers, It’s Not the Thought that Counts

Photo by carnoodles, via Flickr

Meet Toby Ord

The current series of ‘Foto Friday’ posts are focussing on individuals who are currently working in their own way to try and make a positive difference in the world.

Toby Ord is an Oxford University academic, who earns around £33,000 a year (the UK individual national average income is £26,000 a year), but has decided to donate everything he earns above £18,000 a year to charity. He has also donated all his £15,000 savings. His wife has made a similar pledge. He hopes to donate more than a million pounds to charity over the course of his career.

He has founded the Giving What We Can Organisation, whose members pledge to donate at least 10% of what they earn to alleviate global poverty.

Ord lectures on personal ethics, and takes the view that if you feel strongly about the extreme poverty and unfairness in the world you should do something about it. He says he still has a comfortable life; “What’s really important in our lives is spending time together, chatting with our close friends and reading beautiful books and listening to beautiful music”

“I’ve also changed the way I look at the world. I don’t want more stuff. If someone said to me ‘Here’s one thousand pounds’ and I had to spend it on myself I would feel anxious about that because I just want to help people more and it would be a very frustrating time.”

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in The Year I Saved the World]


Similar articles – Meet Shane ClaiborneMeet Ellen McArthurMeet Dale VinceMeet Jessica JackleyMeet KT TunstallMeet Toby Ord Meet Julia Butterfly Hill

Photo by Giving What We Can

It’s NOT the Thought That Counts

A few months ago I caught a programme reviewing the situation in Haiti, twelve months after the earthquake of January 2010. I found one of the statistics they quoted very startling.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.0, with an epicentre 16 miles from the capital Port-au-Prince. Haiti is a poor country, and unlike Japan, most buildings were not built to withstand earthquakes. Massive damage was caused, over 250,000 homes destroyed along with over 30,000 other buildings, including the main sea-port, hospitals, workplaces, shops, police and government buildings, as well as the offices of the United Nations and World Bank. Roads were blocked with rubble for days, fuel quickly ran out, sewage systems stopped working and water, electricity and phones were cut-off. Law and order quickly broke down and sporadic looting and violence occurred.

The Haitian government estimates 315,000 people were killed in the initial earthquake and aftershocks, or died of their injuries shortly afterward. A further 300,000 are estimated to have been injured. Between 1.5 and 1.8 million people were made homeless. Health systems were unable to cope, and a cholera epidemic swept the refugee camps during the autumn.

As tragic and shocking as these statistics are they are not the one I found startling.

In the days immediately following the earthquake an amazing estimated 10,000 plus separate relief agencies and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) arrived in Haiti to help. Although this reflected the fantastic outpouring of sympathy and desire to assist, many of these organisations arrived unannounced and with little preparation. There are usually established systems to co-ordinate emergency aid response following disasters, but Haiti’s systems of governance were so badly damaged following the earthquake, that very little control and coordination existed.

Many NGOs are large and experienced international organisations with skilled staff, but many others had very limited experience and resources. A considerable number were comprised of only a handful of individuals who had quickly gone collecting donations following the earthquake, and had simply turned-up expecting they would be able to be of some use. Many of these organisations failed to achieve very much. For some most of the money they collected was spent on travel, accommodation and subsistence costs for their own staff, and, according to the programme, in some cases  actually needed help and support from other relief agencies, when they got lost, ran out of supplies, or simply were unable to cope. In some places several organisations were offering identical help in the same area, while a few miles away no help was being provided at all.

Obviously all these organisations and individuals meant well, but some were far more effective than others.

Do we think about this when we donate to charity ?

Our initial reaction to a request to give is often based on how we feel about the cause, rather than any kind of understanding of how efficiently our donation will be spent, of what good it will actually achieve.

This seems strange, in most other walks of life, especially where money is concerned, we tend to judge by results, not intentions. Evidence based decision making is now standard practice in many organisations, but perhaps we’re simply more inclined to trust charities and believe they will do the very best they can with our money.

There is another less favourable possibility though – perhaps we simply don’t care that much. Having donated we feel we’ve discharged our obligation and having paid to get ourselves off the hook we can get on with our life and leave the rest up to someone else.

If we are serious about wanting to make a difference when donating our hard earned cash then we need to take more of an interest in how it’s spent and examine how effective it is in achieving what we want. One way to think about it might be to see ourselves as investors or clients, with charities working on our behalf to tackle the issues we are concerned about – considered that way it seems unthinkable we wouldn’t ask for progress-reports now and then!

In the UK the Charity Commission regulates the operation of registered charities, checking they are properly run etc. They also offer them advice on enhancing accountability and improving effectiveness. Typing in the name of a charity on their website will show a range of information concerning that charity, including details of their last filed accounts.

Well run is one thing, but does the money make a difference? Several organisations now scrutinise charity performance, and compare effectiveness, including the US site Give Well, New Philanthropy Capital, and Giving What We Can. The new UK website Alive and Giving, also aims to deliver better analysis of charity performance.

In fact it’s not easy to quantify the benefit of a lot of charitable activities, such as awareness raising and campaigning, or providing education, counselling or emotional support. For others though, especially those engaged in global poverty relief, the powerful and disturbing statistic of cost-per-life-saved can be calculated.

Some aid interventions are widely considered to be more effective a saving lives in the developing world than others. Immunisation programmes, maternal health care provision and provision of clean water appear to be the most beneficial areas to focus aid for the purpose of saving lives. Bill Gates, focuses the majority of his humanitarian efforts into vaccination programmes because “we know they work”.

The next time someone rattles a tin at you or pushes a sponsor form under your nose in the office, think carefully if that is really the most benefit you can put your money to.

Do give, but make it count !

Similar articles – Saving Lives, Meet Toby Ord,

Photo by Blatantworld, via Flickr