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 (www.kiva.org). 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“.)
Facebook never intended for its brand to represent a single site called Facebook.com. So, when everyone and their Media auntie started moaning about how Facebook was losing users, simply because a few people were no longer going to Facebook.com to check their newsfeed, the folks at FB HQ just smiled quietly. Why? Because Facebook is not in the business of hosting a global chat-room. It’s mission is to connect everyone around the world, wherever they are, and however they choose. Thus, we have Facebook Connect, whereby your FB identity follows you all over the Web, and brings your friends with you. It also represents Facebook’s underlying play for ubiquitous presence across the Interwebs.
Facebook has deployed other platform and channel agnostic tools and utilities that integrate their brand more firmly in to your daily Net activities, not least of which is today’s release of Facebook Embedded Posts. Now bloggers, site builders, and other content publishers have been advised they can embed Facebook Page content in to their distinct destinations:
Innovation is alive and kicking! Crowdfunding is going strong! As long as funders keep in mind that they are essentially giving their money away to unproven concepts that offer no guarantees whatsoever, this continues to be an exciting facet of product development. Every time I worry there might be a backlash against the latest failed initiative, along comes something reinvigorating.
Yesterday the Tile App raised 13406% (yes I wrote that correctly!) of its crowdfunding goal, using an open source platform developed by a company rejected by Kickstarter.
OK. Let’s stop there and review:
Kickstarter and Indiegogo are probably the two best known crowdfunding sites. Conventional wisdom would suggest that if you are trying to fund your latest invention, you strive to secure Angel investment, VC funding, or a place for your fundraising campaign on one of these sites. Otherwise, you risk wallowing in the shadows of conceptual anonymity. Kickstarter has done much to validate the concept of crowdfunding, but there exist limitations to the concept, some unforeseen, and some self-imposed. Cameron Robertson and Paul Gerhardt, the co-founders of apigy, a small startup with one product, discovered this when they tried to launch their invention, Lockitron. Kickstarter rejected the product as not conforming to its parameters of eligibility, and many inventors have already reacted to this setback by giving up. However, apigy adopted the age-old formula of “Mountain, Get Out Of My Way”, and promptly developed their own independent crowdfunding campaign and platform, successfully raising in excess of 1000% of their goal in less than 24 hours. The parameters they set for themselves, and communicated to prospective funders, promised a more transparent and accountable productization flow, and Lockitron units began shipping this week.
Stop. Rewind yet again:
So far, we have a company that could not benefit from the emerging model of crowdfunding, as it existed, and therefore opted to secure their own crowdfunding by developing their own platform. Brave and resourceful! Yet why stop there? Once apigy saw how successful their campaign was, they determined that everyone should have the opportunity to tailor-make their own crowdfunding campaign, and thus was born Selfstarter, “an open source starting point for building your own ad-hoc crowdfunding site”.
Tile is billed as “the world’s largest lost and found” and the info video on its funding page (developed using the Selfstarter solution) ably clarifies its value proposition, if perhaps leaving certain gaps unfilled.
Extant the obvious questions such as “will this drain my phone’s battery”, “can my account be hacked or disabled, in much the same scenario as a car alarm?”, or “what happens if my dog swallows the damn thing?”, this is a compelling innovation, and the swift and overwhelming response from the netizens has underscored this. Is this, however, an anomaly? A unique small square solution in a world of convoluted and half-baked concepts? Not if the Kite Patch has anything to say about it!
A small Riverside CA company recently raised well over 200% of its crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, in only 4 days. It’s product? Another small square solution, though addressing a completely different “lost” constituency: the millions who die from malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
As I consult to organizations around the world, I am often straining to convince more conventional NPO development officers to rebalance their fundraising resources away from their current 90% foundation/corporate support models, and more toward the massive grassroots funding ecosystem that always swells up when human beings are forced to recognize how close we all really are to one another. Strained and shattered economies are effective if painful unifiers (though admittedly not 100% unifying!), and the success of crowdfunding campaigns, both commercial and NPO, clearly supports my long-espoused belief that individual donors, sponsors, and funders represent a far more powerful ecosystem of fiscal support than previously believed, and the tools developed by Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and now Selfstarter are greatly facilitating the connection between a given product or solution and its prospective supporters. Indeed, while the economy may be strengthening somewhat in certain parts of the globe, the infrastructure established by these sites and tools does not seem to be dissolving, as it may have in the past, but rather is strengthening and expanding. There will undoubtedly be hiccups and disappointments along the way, be it for the developers or the backers, or both. The opportunities far outweigh the challenges, however, IMHO, and I am excited to see what comes next, and interested to see how the VC and brand sponsorship communities manage to accommodate and adapt to this model.
The Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and one of its initiatives is to provide members with fancy new gold credit card style membership cards, replacing the former paper-based version. My reaction, when I heard this, was one of disappointment. Every initiative taken by an organization today has consequences and implications that reverberate across multiple sectors. In this case, the AEA failed to take advantage of a priceless opportunity to enhance member services, increase member engagement, and exhibit a very simple but impactful degree of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).
More than 7 years ago, the Census Bureau determined that there were nearly 1.5 billion credit cards in use in the U.S. A stack of all those credit cards would reach more than 70 miles into space — and be almost as tall as 13 Mount Everests. If this number of credit cards were thrown away every three years, the stack of credit cards would reach almost 43 Everests high after a decade. These plastics do not biodegrade in landfills. Not so fancy.
Actor’s Equity is not a lone offender, though. When SAG and AFTRA merged, the new union had an opportunity to revisit its longstanding use of plastic credit card member IDs, but opted to stick with the short term functionality of plastics, long-term sustainability be damned. The Producers Guild and other industry organizations are equally guilty. My frustration would be less justified if there existed few alternatives. However, companies such as Discover Financial services are offering cards made of BioPVC™ and other biodegradable alternatives; well-established technologies such as mobile apps present a plethora of creative and operational opportunities; and other technologies such as NFC offer yet more potential, as their adoption becomes more widespread. So why the lack of innovation or sustainability best practices? Is it an absence of imagination? Aversion to change? Financially motivated obduracy?
As current Chair of my city’s Sustainability Commission, I have benefited from the past four years, learning about the negative consequences of unsustainable practices (both in business and personal life), as well as about the positive implications of Green and other more sustainable commercial and community options, be it through renewable materials sourcing, alternative energy programs, commercial district redesigns, and many other areas. Many initiatives in sustainability offer up more than a single-pronged benefit or solution. It’s not just about environmental conservation, or clean air, or recycling. It’s about positioning ourselves, our businesses, and our communities for a more environmentally, socially, and financially robust future.
Had the AEA decided to explore options for member identification, other than the current plastic card tradition, all sorts of exciting avenues to member engagement and empowerment might have been revealed. Imagine a mobile app (what actor does not have a mobile phone?) that represents not only the individual’s union identification, but also a resource for direct connection to their credit union, membership affiliate discount programs, health insurance tools, personalized pension and 401K insights, dues status (and mobile payment processing), and much more, besides. The cost savings to the AEA and their members alike would be enormous, the raw materials no longer needed (plastics, papers, etc) would be mountainous, and the ability to connect more dynamically with membership would elevate the usefulness, value and – by extension – collective bargaining power of the AEA.
To those who would argue that they would not wish to entrust such data to a mobile device that might lose power, break, be stolen, or otherwise be compromised…I suggest they note that more wallets are stolen and lost than mobile devices. The Baby Boomer generation may not be able to acclimatize themselves to the notion of a cardless society, but I personally am quite excited by the idea of saving money, time, and materials – simply by aggregating the contents of my wallet into a well-protected, institutionally insured, cloud-based ecosystem that poses no more risk to our identities than we currently face today. The promise that lies in such innovation far outweighs the risks, and I can think of no better collective to act upon this promise than Actors themselves. This opportunity seems to have been missed, but I sincerely hope that other organizations might think a little more expansively about each initiative they take, going forward. The smallest tweak might offer far greater rewards (and savings) than they might imagine.
My parents rock.
Here below is an excerpt from a recent news publication:
“Miss Porter’s School, a college preparatory school for girls established in 1843 and located in Farmington, Connecticut, is about to become the new home for a large work of art by famed sculptor Andrew DeVries: Calliope (1¼ life-size torso; see photo).
Harold and Julie de Wolff commissioned Calliope in 1998 for their home in Portugal. Some time ago, they decided to return to the United States and began downsizing for their retirement years. They have generously arranged to donate Calliope to Miss Porter’s School to honor her family members who were graduates of the school (the first was in 1875, Julie graduated from there in 1953).”
Graduates of Miss Porter’s have gone on to prove the inescapable truth that well-educated women in leadership roles are just as capable and accomplished as their male counterparts (and, in many cases, better). I pray that, by the time my daughter grows up, the only differences between the sexes will be those worthy of mutual celebration.