Healthier, happier and better looking are some of the benefits of giving to a non-profit. Or so says Arthur Brooks from the American Enterprise Institute in a recent article Handsome Is As Handsome Gives. America is exceptional in its giving because, according to Mr. Brooks, “Americans still give away more than the entire gross domestic product of prosperous countries such as Israel and Denmark.”
That’s a staggering figure and worth digging into.
As a country, we should be proud of the spirit we have always had, that urge to help our neighbors. A few years ago, I lived in Spain for about 18 months. While that was hardly a deep dive, I can say that there was definitely a different understanding of what, and who, is supposed to take on that job. State and church were the two main answers there, as is true in much of western Europe. Even during the recession, charitable giving in the U.S. didn’t decline because of a nation that fundamentally believes in the role of the individual to take care of those less fortunate.
But there’s more to the story. In an Atlantic article earlier this year, research showed that the poorest 20% of Americans gave twice as much, as a percentage of total income, as the richest 20%. While we’re givers, the biggest gifts are very concentrated.
In 2012, not one of the top 50 individual charitable gifts went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed. 34 of the those 50 went to educational institutions (Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, etc), hospitals and museums. It seems that being face to face with basic needs makes people more generous.
Now that’s intriguing.
This article confirmed something that I personally have experienced in the last year as President & CEO at Soles4Souls. The biggest challenge to empathy is isolation.
Many of us, me included much of the time, live in a reality that we take as normal. Most of our friends and work colleagues live in a similar fashion which reinforces that feeling of “this is how the world is.” But it ain’t how the world is for many, many people. Those people may be as close as a few miles from where you sit and read this or as far away as Haiti, Tanzania, Honduras or the Philippines. The only way to understand the differences is to get out of our usual habits and away from our usual acquaintances. To get face to face with those people whose lives show us another way of seeing the world. That’s what changes us and then we can change the world.
I’m not about guilt … a very unproductive emotion. I am, however, all about direct experience.
Just like reading about exercise is no substitute for burning calories, reading this blog post is no substitute for washing the feet of a poor, homeless man or woman. As I have, you may come to appreciate that not every person’s story can be completely told by what you see or believe to be true. To quote the New York Times William Kristof in a recent blog post called “Where is the Love, ”… let’s remember that the difference between being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics.”
As we are in December, when you are about to be slammed by charitable solicitations from dozens of well-meaning organizations (like Soles4Souls!), I hope you give generously once again to those that matter to you. It is indeed one of our country’s remarkable achievements that we have such a robust not for profit sector. Seth Godin, one of my favorite writers and thinkers wrote recently, “Non-profits make change, and the way they do this is by letting us tell ourselves stories that nurture our best selves.”
To get your own story, get eyeball to eyeball with the other, with “them.” More than at a soup kitchen or dropping off Christmas packages or donating used shoes. Listen to their stories, hold their hands and try to see the world from their perspective for even a little while. That’s the story to hang on to. If it makes you healthier, happier and better looking in the process, then consider that another gift from “them” to “us.”
Buddy Teaster is President and CEO of Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based international not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting poverty through the distribution of shoes and clothing.