How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better
A family friend told me recently that he and his wife, both writers, wanted to get into philanthropy. It’s not something I often hear, outside my professional bubble. Giving makes you feel good, so why don’t more people do it regularly?
Partly, I think, because there’s an assumption that philanthropy is only for the very wealthy.
Donations from the likes of Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos get heaps of attention. The scrutiny is important. But it also means that the central characters in most philanthropy stories are business moguls, sports champions and Hollywood stars – no wonder the field can feel as distant a prospect as owning a superyacht.
Philanthropy is much broader than fat cheques from the super-rich. The word comes from the Greek for ‘love of mankind’, though its use has evolved over the centuries (the Philanthropisms podcast provides a useful overview). Nowadays, insiders describe it as an approach, rather than a specific action.
I like this explanation from Larry Lieberman: “Philanthropy is a state of mind that drives action. It doesn’t come from a gene pool, and it doesn’t come from a trust fund. Being a philanthropist does not require any minimum net worth or a six figure income. There is no minimum amount that must be given.”
For some, it doesn’t even have to involve money: it could also be about giving time, experience, skills or talent. As Philanthropisms host Rhodri Davies puts it: private action for public good.
Lots of us give to charity occasionally (nearly one-third of people worldwide donated money in 2020, according to a CAF survey); volunteer (a fifth of those polled); or support a cause or campaign. But a philanthropist, the thinking goes, is different from the occasional do-gooder, because he or she does these things in a more structured, intentional way.
That intentionality makes it challenging. Unlike the one-off charity donation, which is likely to be emotion- or impulse-driven, a philanthropic mindset requires you to think deeply and choose wisely to find something that fits your values and has a high chance of making a difference.
There are structures now that support people to give more thoughtfully and regularly, often as part of a network with other philanthropists. Giving circles gather informal groups of friends (or more formal networks of strangers) to pool resources and ideas to make joint donations. Public commitments, like the Founders Pledge (for entrepreneurs) or the Giving what we can pledge (for anyone), offer accountability as part of a like-minded community. Donor-advised funds allow donors to set aside assets (and claim tax relief) to be distributed to good causes.
Plenty has been written about what stops people giving to charity: suspicion, scepticism, futility; plus the false assumption that spending more on themselves will make them happier than spending on others. But often people believe they can help, and they want to know they’re doing their bit; they just take a while to follow through. I know this because I’m one of them: creating some kind of regular giving plan has been lurking on my to-do list for well over a year.
The writer Oliver Burkeman offers a useful nudge.
In ‘Four thousand weeks: Time and how to use it’, he writes about benefits you can gain, for yourself, by embracing “instantaneous generosity”. Too often we find excuses not to follow our initial instinct. So we put off drafting that email to compliment someone, or finding the perfect recipient for that charity donation – but, he argues, holding off until you have time to do it properly may be a false solution.
“We tell ourselves we’ll turn to it when our urgent work is out of the way,” Burkeman writes. “…Or that we ought first to spend a bit longer researching the best recipients for our charitable donations before making any… but the only donations that count are the ones you actually get round to making.”
Maybe what sets philanthropists apart from the rest of us is some basic get-sh*t-done attitude. That, and telling their friends about their intentions.