Letting go of my gift

A few weeks ago I emailed a Pakistani colleague to ask for her advice about which organization – among those recommended by Acumen Fund – to give to for flood relief.

While looking at the recommended organizations, I found myself thinking about all the things one thinks about in these situations: how much of the money will go directly to help people? How credible and well-managed is the organization?  What kind of difference will this make in people’s lives?

All normal questions, though in some way they felt absurd upon further reflection.  I gave what I could give because of the tragedy that these floods represent, because of the tens of millions of people whose lives have been uprooted and whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed.  I gave as an act of solidarity, as a too-small act of expression of my shared humanity with those who are suffering.

But the actual gift – its monetary value – in the context of everything, is tiny, is miniscule, is quite literally a drop in the bucket.  It’s like casting a vote in an election – something totally irrational in terms of my ability to affect an outcome, but something that is fundamental as an expression of my rights as a citizen, an act in support of democracy, and a statement of my values.

In this way, the act of giving is an act of self-expression, a statement of my values and obligations as a citizen of the world, and, perhaps most importantly, an act of generosity.  And generosity is act that expects nothing in return.

This made me wonder again what was going on when I was pondering the potential efficacy of my gift.  Was I, in some way, unable fully to let go of the notion that “this is my money that I worked hard to earn, and I’m only parting with it in exchange for something tangible that I’m getting” (in this case for someone else).

This may be where I – where we – get tripped up.  The thing that we’re used to doing, that we’ve been trained to do, is to buy stuff. We part with money and in exchange we get……  whatever it is that we get.

Maybe philanthropy is something completely different, maybe it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing: an act of self-expression disguised as a transaction.  In which case we’ve got the order all wrong – we cannot first go through all the learned calculations of what-am-I-getting-for-my-money but instead have to start with ourselves, who we are, and who we want to be.

I worry that in our pursuit of better, smarter philanthropy, we run the risk of trading in soft-heartedness for hard-headedness, and in so doing everyone ends up coming up short – because this is a false choice, one we don’t have to make.  Of course we want money to go the furthest, we want to support the best organizations, we want to make change.  But the “we” in the equation matters a lot.  We, people who give (and people who ask others to give), are affected by our own actions.  We are also striving to be the best version of ourselves.  And we, in the act of giving (the way we approach it, the reasons for our actions, the way we let these actions change us) have a chance to take another step towards becoming the person we hope to be.

5 thoughts on “Letting go of my gift

  1. Yes, there is a real risk that trying to get people to use their head will actually undermine philanthropy. In fact there is strong evidence that this is likely to happen.

    Personally, I think that the most emotionally satisfying gift is one that you know actually made a difference. But it is important that we link the head and the heart approach rather than think we need to convince people to use their head instead of their heart.

  2. The tie between giving and self-expression is pretty interesting, and one that Stanford GSB researcher, Jennifer Aaker, has produced some cool findings about. She looks into the relationship between identity and giving — linking the action of giving to a statement about personal, community, and/or family values.

    She asks another interesting question, which is how bi-directional is the relationship between identity and giving? Are my values defined by my philanthropy… or does my philanthropy define my values?

    Whether this question matters or not… I’d agree that it’s important to link the head and the heart in inciting effective philanthropy. Aaker has produced some other evidenceto suggest that people who activate a (heart) mindset that includes a consideration for how much time they would devote to a cause actually donate more money than those who exclusively activate a (head) mindset — only thinking about how much money they are going to contribute. I think this points towards the value in building relationships with donors that give them adequate opportunity to learn and interact with organizations — instead of relying wholly on impact statistics.

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